Creature effects designer turned director Paul Hyett concocts a fast-paced late-night horror as a bunch of stricken passengers have to survive the night after their train breaks down in werewolf-infested woodland.
There’s a familiarity to Paul Hyett’s Howl that isn’t confined to the werewolf tropes it wallows in; late night train travellers will know what I mean. The assortment of characters and oddballs present on the journey from the city to the suburbs is a good cross-section of the train network’s clientele: the old and the young, the students and the retirees, the astute and the obtuse, the pacifiers and the pacified, the bankers and the wankers. Yet, importantly, they also make for great monster movie fodder; each representing a tasty morsel for hungry lycanthropes skulking under cover of darkness.
Evoking memories of Neil Marshall’s best work is not Hyett’s intention, nor is it particularly greeted, but comparisons cannot go unnoticed. Hyett is a product of Marshall’s school of horror having worked as a prosthetics and creature effects expert on the aforementioned filmmaker’s brilliant underground thriller The Descent. He also teamed up with Marshall for Doomsday and worked on The Descent sequel as well as lending his special-effects expertise to highly regarded British horrors including Eden Lake and The Cottage. Turning his hand to direction in 2012 with The Seasoning House, Hyett proved he had a penchant for the visceral thrills of the genre even if his debut turned out to be more style than substance.
Howl, thankfully, gives him something more satisfying to work with. Writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler having strangely migrated from children’s television drama to adult horror have, nevertheless, produced a script that sets us up with the “group survivor” motif, and the paranoid internal politics that transpire, with an eerily isolated setting that mostly shirks cliché by staging much of the proceedings on the stricken train.
Hyett’s eye for detail is the ideal balancing act. The grimy, metallic carriages that become protective but immovable steel boxes are contrasted with the predatory woodland housing its monster. Yet, there’s a beguiling gothic beauty about the moonlit exterior, of which Hyett lights sublimely, against the man-made artificiality of nature’s midnight intruder with its blown engine and fading electrics. With arguments sprouting amongst the unfortunate passengers, the dynamics of the increasingly panicked group creating its own sense of villainy and fear, there is a welcome underlining to the terror that suggests man and beast are not too dissimilar in their survival instincts.
Yet, with Hyett’s specialism in creature effects it’s little wonder the monsters are wonderfully realised. He takes the humanoid approach, more so than in Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, with the beasts standing on their hind legs and prowling the darkness like the feral bullies of Eden Lake. The less-is-more technique is used rewardingly, leaving something to the imagination as the train’s intermittent power lends the lights a flickering aesthetic that, in more than one attack, recalls the brilliant sequence on the Los Angeles underground in Stephen Hopkins’ sci-fi thriller Predator 2.
The attraction for the werewolves is, of course, the ensemble aboard the train. Some characters work better than others. The gluttonous kebab eater and his irritable bowel is a caricature to hang a few gags on, while the defiant mother (played by The Descent’s talented star Shauna Macdonald) suffers from lazy development. However, the sly self-serving city suit (portrayed with nerve-angering belligerence by Elliot Cowan) complements Ania Marson’s injured old lady as the train’s own malevolent force.
Importantly, Ed Speleers’ unassuming hero is an everyman to hang the story. Speleers captures that sense of someone out of his depth but who has the wherewithal to lead amid adversity. He’s flawed, fearful and ill-equipped but straight-thinking and morally uncorrupted meaning he’s the guy we can root for without a safety net guaranteeing his survival. Indeed, anyone’s game in this fast-paced rendition of slaughter yet Hyett ensures there’s enough to care about on the menu to add an emotive resonance to proceedings.
Where comparison with Dog Soldiers ends is also what prevents Howl from reaching the heights of its genre predecessor. Both films draw their unique edge from the set up and characters but neither would claim to do anything new. However, Marshall’s werewolf movie had a little more fun with convention and had a very British sensibility with its bickering squaddies. Howl is far happier accepting its generic limitations which extends to its character ensemble that has, collectively, a prescribed feel as if aiming to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Yet, much of the enjoyment of Howl derives from it serving expectation. And in doing so it lives up to its billing. It neatly mixes humour with plenty of well-orchestrated set pieces and some terrifically designed werewolves who arrive to turn the evening upside down with genuine menace. Avoiding lycanthrope lore allows Hyett to keep things lean and mean, his narrative uncluttered in order to concentrate on his strengths. Indeed, the skills he has as a director come together as a pleasing combination of atmosphere – oppressive and imperfect – and stylish creature effects. His achievement is the best werewolf movie since Dog Soldiers.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Paul Hyett
Written by: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Starring: Ed Speleers, Holly Weston, Elliot Cowan, Shauna Mcdonald, Sean Pertwee
Country: USA / IMDB
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Howl is released in UK cinemas October 16 and on home entertainment from October 26.