So it’s frightening that the effects in Paul Hyett’s “Howl” are its weakest link.
“Downton Abbey’s” Ed Speleers plays Joe, a hard luck Londoner forced to work an extra shift as a train guard.
He just lost a promotion and got shot down by a beautiful colleague. He stops worrying about both when his train starts to slow down. They coast to a stop in the middle of a forest. The moon above is bright and round.
Staging a werewolf story aboard a stalled train is inspired. So is the way “Howl” makes us care about the wolves’ potential Hot Pockets. Joe’s sad sack shtick gains our trust. His character arc carries right through the film’s waning seconds. The passengers, even the teen who can’t tear herself away from her smart phone, glimmer with personality.
It’s not a character study, mind you. Given the low standards of modern horror movies, “Howl” earns a passing grade.
The ensuing scares don’t nudge us close to the edge of our seats. We’re still rooting for the passengers to survive, except for the requisite jerk (Elliot Cowan). It’s disappointing that “Descent” standout Shauna Macdonald is given little to do beyond shriek as if feminism hadn’t forced horror scribes to up their game.
Along the way the genre tropes line up for inspection. We meet yet another couple whose love is so strong it makes them abandon all logic. And more than a few people make decisions that smack of plot contrivances.
Hyett’s sense of tone wobbles here and there, although for having just two films to his directorial credit he gets it right more often than not. A few jokes land hard, slicing through the tension.
The film’s werewolves pack a wallop – if only we saw much less of them. When glimpsed in flashes the makeup is perfectly acceptable. As soon as they start mugging for a tight shot … ugh. Low-fi horror works best when the filmmakers acknowledge their limitations.
The film’s Blu-ray edition features a short on how “Howl” brought those wolves to life. Turns out they asked the actors to participate in “movement workshops” to prep for the shoot. We watch a group of thespians get down on all fours and snarl in true wolf fashion.
The FX team employed practical effects seasoned with CGI to animate the howling beasts. That fusion should have yielded richer results.
DID YOU KNOW: Paul Hyett drew some inspiration for his werewolves from the original “Wrong Turn” film’s mutated villains.