Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's time for a decent werewolf film, so take a chance on Paul Hyett's train thriller, HOWL

What is it about movies that take place on a speeding train that makes them -- initially, at least -- irresistible? Maybe that inesca-pable sense of "confined space"? Or the opportunity to meet a group of disparate characters who wouldn't otherwise be thrown together? Or the suspense provided by that other thing these movies always seem to possess: a big problem -- a killer, a bomb, a crazy person -- in the midst of all that train travel?

Two recent and very good examples of this genre are Last Passenger and Honour, the latter of which, though not officially a "locomotive" movie, offers a terrifically effective opening and closing scene aboard a moving train. The latest to enter the train genre is the new werewolf movie HOWL, and I think it is no coincidence that all three of these films, along with so many other "train" movies (remember The Lady Vanishes?) are British. The Brits seems much more connected to their trains than are we auto-obsessed Americans.

Howl is a much better and more subtle film that its too-obvious American DVD/Blu-ray box art, above, might suggest. (The British theatrical posters, at right and below, give a much better sense of the dark tone and suspenseful appeal of the film.) Oh, there's plenty of guts, gore and nasty creatures involved here, but the film takes its pleasant time building up to this, as we meet and get to know the diverse set of people aboard the last nightly train from London to the provinces during an initial storm that eventually ceases, unveiling -- uh-oh -- a full moon.

While the passengers and crew seem at first to be a sad and unpleasant lot, as we get to know them, truer colors surface, and most of these men and women prove decent enough sorts who gain our sympathy. The train is soon brought to a halt in the midst of a dense forest, and then the carnage begins. Director Paul Hyett (shown below), together with screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, may be a bit better at building suspense than they are at maintaining a riveting pace.

Still, they are good enough at both to eventually have us holding our breath in hopes that these people whom we now care about, will somehow survive. Who does and who doesn't is, of course, necessary for the fun-and-games of the survival genre -- of which this film is also a part. The dozen or so passengers and crew that make up the cast do a fine job of differentiating themselves and creating surprisingly full characters in a very short time.

In the leading roles are the sad young conductor (Ed Speleers, above) who's just been denied a promotion, and the coffee service girl (Holly Weston, below, left) whom he likes but who does not return his affection.

We also have the career woman, the hotshot businessman, the sullen teen, the working-class striver hoping to find a better job, the loving senior couple, the out-of-it fat boy, and the nerdy egghead East Indian or maybe Pakistani kid. A mixed and interesting bag, this, but very soon their numbers begin to decline.

How the attacks come and what happens is all part of what we expect from the werewolf genre, but there are enough little surprises along the way to keep us feeling creepy and on our toes.

How it plays out -- from claw marks on the equipment (above) to some unusual behavior from all concerned -- is alternately expected and not,

with the long-awaited transformations finally coming fast and furiously.

Certainly no masterpiece of the genre, Howl nonetheless fills a gap by being one of the better werewolf movies since the much-appreciated but woefully underseen Dog Soldiers back in 2002.

Interestingly enough, one of the stars of that Neil Marshall movie, Sean Pertwee (above), also makes an appearance in this one, as the unlucky train driver.

Well, most of the characters here turn out to be unlucky, but they're rather plucky, too, which adds immeasurably to the movie's interest and charm. Howl, from Alchemy and running a crisp 92 minutes, is available now for rental or purchase on DVD, Blu-ray, early EST (Electronic-Sell-Through) and digital streaming (via Amazon & perhaps elsewhere, too).

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