As so often it goes with the genre, this film opens with our lead having a very rough day. Train guard Joe (Ed Speleers), just off of a long shift, discovers that he’s been passed up for a promotion. The coworker that won that promotion wastes no time to gloat and forces an exhausted Joe to pick up an immediate second shift. With the train full of unpleasant passengers Joe’s only comfort is the opportunity to ask out fellow coworker Ellen (Holly Weston), also sharing passenger duties. She rebuffs his advances while the passengers make his job as difficult as possible, but his evening sinks to a whole new low when the train gets stranded in the middle of the woods during a full moon.
Director Paul Hyett takes a more traditional approach with his werewolves on a train tale. He succinctly introduces us to his motley crew of characters, giving just a taste of the stereotype each represents before stranding them in the middle of the woods like a buffet line for the ravenous werewolves. With the basic premise and a cast of characters that adhere to genre clichés, such as the requisite jerk or the entitled teen, Hyett wisely focuses on what’s important; the horror.
He maintains an excellent pace throughout; once the passengers are stranded the kills begin slowly as the wolves test boundaries until it crescendos into a full blown siege. The claustrophobic setting only enhances the frantic pace. The passengers quickly realize how dangerous it is to step foot outside of train, but it’s becoming less secure staying inside as well. Their clashing personalities only heighten the panic.
In keeping with tradition, it takes a while for the full reveal of the werewolves. They spend a lot of time lurking in the shadows, with only glimpses here and there of limbs or glowing eyes. It’s an effective tool for building tension and allows for a bigger impact when the monster is fully revealed. This approach proved all the more clever when this moment finally comes, as the shock of the reveal helps to alleviate the sting of a terrible creature design. While unique, the almost literal interpretation mixed with the digital creature effects layered over the practical detracts from what Hyett is trying to achieve.
Luckily, the werewolves are not tidy eaters and their violent nature is handled mostly through practical effects. Even when the kills happen off screen, the copious amounts of blood and gurgling sounds go a long way. With a lot of mostly miserable passengers, you’ll find yourself at times rooting for the next moment of gleeful carnage.
Ultimately, therein lays the crux. As fun of a creature feature that Howl is, we don’t really care what happens to the characters. When they argue over how to handle their predicament, or the requisite jerk complicates matters, it feels like we’ve been here before. Even the dialogue between them has a familiar sense of déjà vu. There are some surprising moments where a stereotypical character actually does something out of character, but in the end they’re all written a bit too thin to really endear themselves to the audience.
Howl doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but despite its flaws it’s still an entertaining ride. Hyett’s pacing and use of the gloomy, claustrophobic setting gives the film that throwback monster movie feel that’ll have you cheering the slaughter. But as fun as the film can be, a weak final act, paper thin characters, and a story we’ve seen before ultimately makes Howl something you’re likely to enjoy… and then quickly forget all about.
Paper thin characters with a familiar story weighs down an enjoyable throwback monster movie with great pacing and claustrophobic setting.