When a filmmaker is given a budget of around a million pounds, certain ruthless decisions have to be made when it comes to the production. Where possible, things have to be kept to a minimum, and that can span all the way from sets, to the film’s plot.
Director Paul Hyett had only a million pounds to work with in making Howl, the 2015 werewolf flick from across the pond. Luckily, the screenplay from Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler is just as sparse as the budget (not surprising, as the two are also credited as associate producers — they were in a position to know they couldn’t write Gone with the Wind).
Howl takes place mostly aboard bland, featureless commuter train cars. These are the worst of the various modes of public transport. They combine the sardine can aspects of a city subway with the long commuting times of regional rail. Before this review turns into a rant, I’ll just say that a set like this didn’t cost the production a ton of money. What pennies they saved they used on special effects. That’s a win.
The film tells the story of a late-night train out of Waterloo station in London. As the train leaves the station, Hyett introduces us to the cast. Joe, the conductor (Ed Speleers), travels forward in the train, checking the tickets of all the commuters who are potential fodder for the beasties. This sequence is a decent bit of filmmaking, compressing character development into effective little snippets. How these passengers interact with Joe tells viewers all they need to know about the characters.
There’s the drunken football fan, Paul (Calvin Dean), the sleazy City financier, Adrian (Elliot Cowan), the brat, Nina (Rosie Day), the old couple, Ged and Jenny (Duncan Preston and Ania Marson), etc., etc. It would seem like a cheap way to get character development out of the way, but there’s nothing about characters such as this that an experienced horror fan won’t find familiar. Backstories aren’t necessary. Getting this kind of stuff out of the way quickly means we can get to the bloody fun that much quicker.
Only a few miles away from the final stop of run, the train hits a deer on the tracks and its corpse severs the fuel line, bringing the train to a stop. The train engineer (Sean Pertwee, in a performance that might have been filmed in a single evening), is the first victim, and this film is off and rolling. The remaining crew of the train and the passengers must now come to terms with the fact that at least one werewolf lives in the surrounding woods, and it’s on the hunt. (A quick aside. It was a dark and stormy night in this flick, yet the full moon shines brightly in the sky. Well, nothing is perfect.)
This would be a boring flick if the train cars offered enough protection for the characters, so they get whittled down at regular intervals, in satisfying sprays of fake blood and guts. This flick will get blood junkies their fix. There’s also a decent amount of tension. That’s a rather impressive feat when one considers most of this film takes place inside of grey boxes.
Hyett and company were also smart enough to find reasons to get characters off of the train and into further danger. It’s not a master class in storytelling, but Hyett knows how to move things along.
It really is Hyett’s ability to weave this film out of little material that makes it most impressive to me. There are a few moments here and there in the film I didn’t care for, but Hyett had a tough job. It’s not easy to keep an audience’s attention when everything about the film is so thin.
There’s nothing new in Howl for the horror vet. This is one of countless horror flicks where a small cast is stalked in an isolated location by something bad, but what horror fan is going to turn down a simple, decent flick like this? It’s the bedrock the genre is built on.