Writers: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Producers: Ed King, Martin Gentles
Cast: Ed Speelers, Holly Weston, Shauna Macdonald
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: screener
As a non-driver, I travel by train a lot. And although I’ve never had any serious problems, I always carry certain essentials with me when travelling. In my man-bag you’ll find a pen-knife, a wind-up torch, string, safety pins and a range of other small items that could be very handy in an emergency, such as a derailment, a terrorist attack or, hypothetically, being trapped on the train by a pack of werewolves.
Which brings us to Howl, the second feature as director for BHR make-up effects legend Paul Hyett. Paul’s directorial debut, you may recall, was the jaw-droppingly brilliant The Seasoning House – a powerful, masterfully crafted film whose low rating on Rotten Tomatoes can be ascribed to its intensity, its bleakly nihilistic non-commerciality, and the difficulty of watching and understanding the disturbing ideas therein (especially for conservative mainstream film critics – and yes, I know that’s tautology).
Paul has followed The Seasoning House with a much more obviously commercial prospect. Werewolves on a train. It doesn’t get any more high concept than that. The end result is a fun monster movie with the requisite number of shocks, a decent amount of gore and a bunch of largely sympathetic characters played by a talented cast. But it’s not without its problems.
So: Ed Speleers stars as Joe, a bored young train guard who has just been passed over for promotion. When a colleague calls in sick, he finds himself assigned at short notice to the 23.59 from Waterloo to Commuterbeltville. On the plus side, the at-seat catering on this journey is provided by Ellen (Holly Weston), on whom Joe has a secret crush. Speleers was previously in Downton Abbey, A Lonely Place to Die and werewolf-comedy Love Bite as well as the disappointingly lupine-free Wolf Hall. Weston was Ash in Hollyoaks, was in BHR entries Dementamania and Splintered, and apparently was the dead body of the title character’s wife in epic Disney misfire John Carter.
Somewhere in the middle of the woods, the train suddenly lurches to a halt and the driver gets out to investigate what he just hit. This turns out to be a stag, although it's a bit difficult to determine as the cinematography by Adam Biddle (Crank, Blood Shot) is very dark throughout the whole film.
So the elderly couple (Victoria Wood stock player Duncan Preston and Ania Marson: Amityville Playhouse) aren’t too old and doddery. The self-centred millennial teen (Rosie Day: The Seasoning House) isn’t too selfish. The bolshie businesswoman (Shauna Macdonald: The Descent, Mutant Chronicles, The Hike) isn’t too bolshie. The mildly OCD nerd (Amit Shah) isn’t too nerdy. The working class kid described by another character as “ASBO boy” (Sam Gittins) isn’t too working class and certainly isn’t even remotely ASBO. And the rich, arrogant tosser (Elliot Cowan: Frankenstein Chronicles, Narcopolis, The Ruby in the Smoke) only really displays his full arrogance and tossership towards the end. Although, to be fair, the fat bloke (Calvin Dean: Tormented, Don’t Move) is certainly very fat. (Gittins’ character is particularly ill-served in this department. One of the others says, “You must have a knife,” to which he replies, “Why would I have a knife?” This would work if Gittins played a lary, foul-mouthed chav but his character is a well-presented, politely spoken young man and the audience is left equally puzzled: why would someone think he had a knife?)
This group are unable to make contact with anyone: there’s no mobile signal and the driver’s cab radio raises only a distorted voice saying something about being unable to send help because of fallen trees, or something. They do seem to give up on that cab radio very quickly, I must say. It clearly does work so I’d have stuck with it a bit longer.
But instead, the passengers decide that they all want to walk along the tracks to the next station, which they start to do until realising that there is some sort of dangerous wild beast in the dark with them - whereupon they high-tail it back to the train. And thus begins the siege which forms the greater part of the story (the cab radio having been conveniently forgotten). One by one the characters are dragged outside and devoured, until the beast makes it inside the train and they must fight for their lives.
There’s nothing new or different or original or clever in Huckerby and Ostler’s script. This is a thoroughly formulaic monster movie with absolutely no surprises. There are points which are possibly supposed to be surprises, like characters we had forgotten about reappearing, but they’re not actually surprising because it’s pretty obvious who’s going to reappear. All the beats are here that we’ve seen a hundred times before: the injured person with a loyal partner, the characters with a history, the false sense of closure (with nearly half an hour to run!). Paul Hyett and his cast take us through these with aplomb, but there’s nothing meaty for either director or actors to get their teeth into.
There’s a little bit of character conflict but not nearly enough. No big shouting match between two people with equally valid ideas over a decision which, if taken wrongly, spells grisly doom. One character does cause enough trouble to be briefly tied up – even though it’s glaringly obvious (to the viewer at least) that he will be proved right in his warnings about another character. Hustler and Ockerby have a background in kids’ TV (they have written other feature scripts but this is the first one produced) and I’m afraid it shows. Not in any juvenilia but simply in the lack of plot complexity on display here and the shallowness of the characterisation. Despite the numerous occurrences – and constant, imminent threat – of savage, bloody death, these characters behave and interact as if they’re in a film which “contains mild peril”.
Seats in railway carriages face backward and forwards (as depicted on the Howl teaser poster). And the aisle down the middle is narrow, barely wide enough for two people to pass. Why does this need explaining? As soon as you redesign your set for practical purposes to something that doesn’t actually exist, you say goodbye to any sense of realism. I’m not being picky here. The confines of a railway carriage are a very well-known environment and, crucially, have tremendous potential in a horror scenario like this. If it’s difficult to get up and down the coach en masse, if it’s possible to be trapped between two rows of seats, if people have to scramble over seats – or even hide underneath them – to escape, then you’ve got yourself a brilliant horror location. But not here. This is just a long, wide corridor.
There’s no sense of claustrophobia in Howl – because everyone has so much room to move about. And the set’s total dissimilarity to what we were expecting, to the carriages that vast numbers of people sit or stand in every day, constantly distracts us from the story, taking us out of the movie. Great British horror films – of which Paul Hyett has worked on many – derive much of their strength from their settings, placing established horror tropes into prosaic, everyday British locations. The inside of a commuter carriage is one such location. Whatever this fantasy vehicle is – isn’t.
While I’m at it, there’s a frankly ridiculous scene about halfway through when the survivors produce from somewhere a cordless electric drill and use it to attach a range of metal gratings over the windows as improvised barricades against potential lycanthropic intrusion. Do the writers genuinely think that a commuter train has lots of easily removable, large metal parts, along with garden shed power tools (and presumably a decent supply of screws)? And it’s difficult to see what barrier this would present given that what the gratings are being attached to is just plastic. Seriously, have these guys ever travelled on Network Rail?
Here’s another couple of script things that didn’t work: [spoilers on] I didn’t buy for a moment that a diesel-electric train, which is a very complex piece of machinery, could be easily fixed by someone who repairs lawnmowers for a living. I know it’s just a leak in a fuel pipe, but the idea that he could first diagnose that, then find it (in the dark) and then just wrap it up with some convenient gaffer tape and the engine would start first time – is daft. Also, there’s a brief shot right near the end of lone survivor Ellen walking back through the morning commuters at Waterloo, bloodied and dazed. But how the hell has she got there? Has she really walked all the way back from the countryside into central London? And without encountering any police or anyone else who would help her? Finally, this is really nitpicky but the at-seat catering on British trains is usually provided by franchises, not staff of the train company itself. That’s not important, but would have cost nothing to get right – and further emphasises how too many of the people involved in this film have no experience of rail travel (except, presumably, on the Tube). [spoilers off]
Getting back to the production design, there is also a very obvious flaw in the set dressing. Your humble scribe has in the past wilfully ignored Aldo Lado’s sound advice and actually ridden on late night trains. In my SFX days I was a regular on the red-eye back to Bath. And let me tell you something: by the end of the day, trains are filthy. The carriages of anything departing at 23.59 will be full of beer cans, fast food cartons and other detritus. Apart from anything else, where are all the discarded copies of Metro? This sort of set dressing would have not only given verisimilitude to the mise en scene, it would also have (once again) added to the horror potential. You have the risk of slipping on the crap littering the floor. You have the desperation of searching underneath seats for half-empty drinks when the water has run out. Instead, we have a set of clean carriages where the only food packaging on view is the fat bloke’s briefly seen burger carton.
As director, Hyett left the actual effects to others. I wouldn’t like to try and decipher the range of credits on offer at the end, but Simon Webber (Godzilla, The Wolf Man) has ‘creature design’ and Kristyan Mallett (a mix of blockbusters and BHR, including Strippers vs Werewolves and Love Bite) has ‘prosthetics make-up designer’. We do get a good look at a werewolf well before the end (and indeed in the trailer). It looks like a body-builder with a fright-mask: plenty of teeth, shaggy hair atop its head. Other close-ups show us distinctly canine back legs; we never see the whole thing full-length but presumably it walks like Pan. In most of the exterior shots, the werewolves are merely shadowy humanoid figures with the previously mentioned glowing eyes. In interviews, Hyett said his concept was that the werewolves have slowly evolved over many years, but there’s no way to derive that from what’s on screen. (So far as I can tell, Paul himself has only designed one lycanthrope – for the Romanian-shot US movie Werewolf: The Beast Among Us. That was a more conventional, hairy, dog-faced affair.)
13hrs. (NB. I wouldn’t like to compare this directly with the recently reviewed Dense Fear Bloodline except to note that, while Howl is better on an absolute scale because of the budget and the quality of the talent involved, Tony Gardner’s microbudget feature did more with what it had available.)
The really disappointing thing here, it eventually occurred to me, is that Howl signally fails to use its high-concept premise: werewolves on a train. Since the train is stationary and displays none of the distinctive architecture of a train - furniture that inhibits movement, windows that can't be barricaded - the fact that it's a train becomes largely immaterial. If this group of people were just in a metal shed in the middle of nowhere (for some reason) the bulk of the film would be pretty similar. The definitive 'werewolves on a train' film is still waiting to be made, I fear,
Ostler and Huckerby have another horror feature in production at time of writing: a supernatural chiller called Don’t Knock Twice directed by Caradog James. Most of their previous work has been kids TV, including the remakes of Thunderbirds and Danger Mouse, Tree Fu Tom, Peter Rabbit and a forthcoming cartoon series based on the monster-packed Scream Street series of books. They also wrote quite a few episodes of Thomas and Friends, a series which has an extraordinarily large number of horror-themed stories. Seriously: every third or fourth episode, Toby or Percy or someone thinks they’ve seen a ghost or a monster (which invariably turns out to be something harmless). Still, at least Annie and Clarabelle look like real carriages.
Shot over four weeks in May/June 2014, Howl had its world premiere at the Fantasy Film Fest in Hamburg in August 2015 followed by a UK premiere at Frightfest. It had limited theatrical play in October that year and hit UK DVD just in time for Halloween. Paul Hyett’s next directorial gig is one quarter of anthology feature Its Walls Were Blood. I retain every confidence in him and am as excited and hopeful about that as I was with Howl.
Final point to note. The film’s Twitter feed and Facebook page describe Howl as “a new psychological werewolf creature feature.” What the hell is a psychological creature feature? Looks like yet another example of some PR wonk determined to avoid using the words ‘horror’ or ‘monster’ because we all know that no-one likes horror films…
MJS rating: B