Director: Paul Hyett
Writer: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Producer: Ed King, Martin Gentles
Stars: Ed Speleers, Shauna Macdonald, Elliot Cowan, Holly Weston, Amit Shah, Rosie Day, Calvin Dean, Brett Goldstein, Sam Gittins, Ania Marson, Duncan Preston, Sean Pertwee
Passengers stranded aboard a stalled commuter train find themselves stalked by a pack of savage creatures.
Disappointed over losing a promotion, disinterested in his job, and dismayed by an inability to court a co-worker, Joe is a mopey bloke. His dour demeanor makes for the type of “poor me” protagonist a screenplay like Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler’s for “Howl” assumes is sympathetic when it is more or less self-pityingly glum.
Misery loves company, though. Joe’s dog-eat-dog day of shuffling through his shift as a train car conductor/guard sees him making acrimonious acquaintances with a whole host of similarly sullen sods. Cranky Kate hisses an insult when Joe makes her repay a misplaced ticket’s fare. Causeless rebel Nina fires up a cigarette while her phone pumps out tunes in the smoke-free quiet zone. Cocky Adrian licks lips with lust aimed at anyone in a skirt and high heels. From chubby chowderhead to bespectacled bookworm, “Howl” assembles the usual assortment of “no two are alike” personalities one might expect from an “unlikely strangers forced to survive together” premise.
In the eagerness to populate this train with clichéd characteristics, one ingredient left out of the mix is a small pinch of likability that might make even one of these people exciting or engaging. That omission means once the stalled train strands this unlucky bunch to be stalked by a pack of savage monsters, it is less a question of who we would like to see saved, and more a matter of who would we like to die first? Chuck in ill-timed backstory drama, e.g. Kate’s epiphany about Adrian’s identity, Nina’s sudden switch to mum-missing good girl, or Joe’s spontaneous kissing courage, and everything constituting a character arc plays like desperate development when it should be paralleling the story’s suspense.
Not that it matters much. “Howl” is never engineered to Kool-Aid Man its way through the werewolf movie mold. Kibosh expectations coming from cast and crew connections to Neil Marshall’s “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent,” and “Howl” at least ranks as an average movie for an average night of horror entertainment.
Keeping the film from floating further to the top, in addition to the problem of depressing drips dotting the character roster, is director Paul Hyett’s simple satisfaction with a straightforward approach. Hyett’s directorial debut “The Seasoning House” (review here) sunk its teeth into the psyche through feral fearlessness for unflinching savagery. “The Seasoning House” has a ferocity that would suit “Howl” well, but this film waters down that relentlessness in order to become a more comfortably conventional mainstream movie.
A crystal ball with a cataract can foresee every scare in store. When the creature camera creeps on a straggling passenger racing to safety, the only unanswered question is which of her limbs will be caught in the closing door as the monster approaches. Even if you forget that a previously established character goes momentarily missing from the main group, a shot of two passengers cautiously approaching a rattling bathroom door is so curiously absent of anyone saying “help!” on one side or “is anyone in there?” on the other, that the only possible outcome is a Val Lewton sting on an “oh it’s just you” reveal.
“Howl” has more in common with a zombie siege standoff than it does with a werewolf at the door setup. It’s an almost interesting angle on lycanthrope lore until typical tropes from that subgenre hitch a ride, too.
One passenger has a no nonsense plan for dealing with a bitten survivor clearly showing signs of eyes turning yellow while teeth morph into fangs. In a case where maybe the script was caught unaware that makeup effects would make no mistake about the transformation taking place, characters cling to the old “maybe she just needs a doctor” chestnut of dimwitted denial inevitably leading to more than one “you should have known better” deaths. Makes the man investigating a noise in distant, darkened woods alone and armed only with a flashlight look like a Rhodes Scholar.
Caught up in keeping its style unadventurous, “Howl” nevertheless fills the function of a standard werewolf thriller, provided no mind is paid to recycled predictability. Some wobbly effects, such as the train miniaturized in an exterior shot and the first full look at a monster sporting a poorly-placed wig, tie additional kinks here and there. Still, carnage and creatures are enticing enough to keep material moving no matter how loudly the script screams for a full stop. Paul Hyett now needs the courage to put a bigger bite of originality into future projects, and aim for the sharpness of “The Seasoning House” instead of the safety of “Howl.”
Review Score: 60