FrightFest Review: HOWL (2015){0}

Werewolves on a Train

“It wasn’t an animal. It was more like a man.”

This line, spoken by Jenny (Ania Marson) about the creature that has just viciously bitten her, cuts to the thematic heart of this second feature (after 2012’s The Seasoning House) to be directed by British FX/makeup guru Paul Hyett. Given that it is called Howl and that the title first appears on screen with a full moon forming the ‘o’, viewers have a good idea from the outset what kind of film they are about to be watching (hint: it is not another Allen Ginsberg biopic) – and a cameo from Dog Soldiers‘ Sean Pertwee as the first victim of a half-seen creature whose legs are decidedly lupine pretty much pins down Howl‘s particular subgenre. Yet as the film’s characters, trapped on a stalled night train in the middle of a forest, take a little longer to work out just what it is that has them beleaguered, they themselves reveal the bestial side of their own humanity, and the human side of their bestiality.

We first see hero Joe (Ed Speelers) walking, exhausted and hangdog, through Waterloo Station from what he thinks is his last shift, only to be bullied – by the guy who has just beat him to a promotion – into serving as replacement guard on the ‘Eastborough redeye’. Pushover Joe is either ignored or insulted by the passengers, his only consolation being the presence of Ellen (Holly Weston) on catering duty – even if the aggressively self-assured broker Adrian (Elliott Cowan) is already competing with Joe for her attention. “Survival of the fittest” is the expression used by Adrian to compare his previous life as an unctuously affluent, philandering opportunist to his current predicament – and much as the name of the train company is, rather pointedly, ‘Alpha’, what we are witnessing here is a Darwinian struggle that Joe, overlooked and underappreciated but also generous and brave, ever so gradually stops losing. The introduction of lycanthropic monsters merely intensifies this race to be top dog.

As an elderly couple (Marson, Duncan Preston), a selfish young woman glued to her phone (Rosie Day), a workaholic single mother (Shauna Macdonald), an overweight football fan (Calvin Dean), an “ASBO kid” (Sam Gittins) and a bookish nerd (Amit Shah) are all forced to fight together tooth and nail, their conflicts of generation and class are as prominent as any external threat, making Howl travel parallel tracks between, on the one hand, British werewolf flicks like Wild Country (2004) and 13Hrs (2013), and on the other, locomotive social commentaries like Europa (1991) and Snowpiercer (2013). So though Howl offers plenty of visceral backwoods thrills (with its creatures resembling a combination of dogs and the mutant cannibals from the Wrong Turn franchise), it also comes with just enough meat on its bone to make for a satisfying snack – even if it is perhaps a little too superficial to feel like a full meal.