Monday, July 13, 2015

The Blu Report: Howling II & Ladyhawke

Time to get caught up on a couple of the more interesting Blu-ray discs to cross my desk in recent weeks. I plan on doing one of these grab-bag posts every so often, so if nothing tickles your fancy this time, maybe we’ll find your fancy-tickler in an upcoming installment. And if the promise of having your fancy tickled isn’t enough to keep you coming back for more, I give up.

Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf (Scream Factory)

When the legendary Christopher Lee passed away recently, tributes flooded the internet from fans of every generation. Odds are you may have watched one or two Christopher Lee movies yourself in honor of his memory. With well over two hundred titles to his credit, there were certainly plenty of options, from his iconic Hammer Films to cult favorites like The Wicker Man and Gremlins 2 to more recent turns for filmmakers like Tim Burton and Peter Jackson. And yet, I can almost guarantee that nobody’s first choice for a Christopher Lee Tribute Night was Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf.

Blessed/cursed with one of the most ridiculous titles of all time (even better/worse in its original form, Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch), this is the only movie in the surprisingly resilient Howling franchise to at least nod back to Joe Dante’s original. Although it may be overstating things to call the connection a nod. It’s more like a dismissive wave goodbye while shooting it the finger.

Reb Brown (Yor, the hunter from the future, himself!) plays the brother of Dee Wallace’s character from the first film. Lee turns up to let Brown know his sister was a werewolf and talk him into trekking to Transylvania to take on Stirba, the werewolf queen (Sybil Danning).

I’m somewhat fascinated by the Howling series. For all intents and purposes, this is the anthology franchise that Halloween III: Season Of The Witch tried and failed to become. The Howling movies have nothing in common apart from their titles and the fact that they all have something to do with werewolves. Oh, and one other common denominator: none of the sequels are particularly good. Director Philippe Mora would go on to make one more entry, 1987’s goofy Howling III: The Marsupials. Howling II is more trashy than goofy with some very 80s costume choices and more than a few what-were-they-thinking moments. You can’t really recommend this movie to anyone but the audience for this movie knows who they are, anyway.

This is a typically impressive Scream Factory release with plenty of extras that are a whole lot more interesting than the movie itself. You get two audio commentaries (both worth listening to), interviews with Reb Brown, Sybil Danning and makeup FX artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler, alternate footage, stills, the trailer and more. If I can’t recommend the movie, I can certainly recommend the disc. It’s a worthwhile entry in the Scream Factory lineup.

Ladyhawke (Warner Archive)

If you were a fan of fantasy films back in the 1980s, you probably look back at ’85 and ’86 as two of your favorite years. Those years gave us Ladyhawke, Legend, Labyrinth and even a few movies that didn’t start with an “L”, such as The Black Cauldron and Highlander. Each of these movies has their ardent fans but unfortunately, none of them were colossal mega-hits. As a result, fantasy remained a pricey and dicey proposition at the box office for years. Hard to believe these days, after Peter Jackson has made six epic journeys to Middle-earth and Game Of Thrones has conquered TV.

Of these ‘80s fantasies, Ladyhawke was probably the most conventional, a straight-forward fantasy-romance about two lovers under a curse that transforms her into a hawk by day and him into a wolf by night. But Ladyhawke works as well as it does because it’s told with conviction and sincerity by an unusual group of collaborators.

This was one of two movies directed by Richard Donner released in 1985, debuting just two months before The Goonies. Donner was actually in need of a bit of a comeback at the time. The runaway success of The Omen and Superman had been followed by his removal from Superman II and the critically successful but little-seen Inside Moves. Since then, he’d released just one movie, the loathsome Richard Pryor/Jackie Gleason anti-comedy The Toy. Ladyhawke kicked off a winning streak for Donner that lasted for the rest of the decade.

Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer are ideal as the cursed lovers. This would be one of the few attempts at transforming Hauer into a conventional Hollywood leading man, an effort that was probably doomed from the start. Hauer’s intensity makes him anything but conventional. Back in ’85, Hollywood still wasn’t sure what to do with Pfeiffer, either. It’d be a couple more years before she truly came into her own and audiences got a chance to see what she was capable of.

Then there’s Matthew Broderick, acting as though his agent got his clients mixed up and sent him to the wrong set. It’s too harsh to say that he’s the weak link because the movie still works but his performance absolutely clashes with the old-fashioned grandeur around him. Broderick gets top billing but the movie belongs to his costars.

Ladyhawke was not well-served on DVD, making Warner Archive’s Blu-ray a welcome upgrade. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography looks absolutely spectacular on this disc. The only extra on board is the film’s trailer. A commentary by Richard Donner would have been nice but the movie’s modest fan base ruled that out. Even so, the disc is worth picking up for its technical improvements alone.