Eighteen years ago, Will Kidman (Landon Liboiron) was literally torn from his mother’s womb after she was mauled to death by a mysterious monster. Now Will is a high school senior with a hopeless crush on sultry bad girl Eliana Wynter (Lindsey Shaw), who has a psychotic boyfriend in Roland (Niels Schneider) and runs with a pack of punk poseurs. After being roughed up, Will finds a friend in Kay (Ivana Milicevic), a kindly woman with a son at the same school, who assures him his life will get better. Shortly thereafter, Eliana lures Will to an underground rave where, high on ecstasy, he thinks he hallucinates werewolves attacking the other club kids. He narrowly escapes being mauled by a ravenous beast. Come the morning, strange changes in Will’s body have him convinced he is becoming a werewolf.
Well, what do you know? After three decades and seven fair-to-godawful sequels, the Howling franchise at last yields a movie worthy of the original werewolf classic. Unfortunately the low gore content coupled with a newfound emphasis on romance led the hardcore horror contingent to undervalue The Howling Reborn, but speaking as someone who sat through all those largely slapdash sequels, the atypical presence of strong characters, snappy dialogue, genuine emotions and directorial competence goes a very, very long way. In some ways typical of the recent trend for rebooting established franchises with hip young things, the film spoofs its own blatent pursuit of the youth audience when Will’s monster movie fan best friend (Jesse Rath) remarks kids don’t watch films with actors that resemble their parents.
Besides merging the overriding themes behind the two most popular high school fantasies in recent times: destiny (Harry Potter) and desire (Twilight), the film also replays motifs from the first Howling in fresh and ingenious ways: the subjective camera stalker, the S&M sex scene, the climactic transformation broadcast on the evening news, and the story continuing over the end credits with apocalyptic implications. First time writer-director Joe Nimziki cleverly parallels teenage tensions (obligations to parents, peer pressure, an uncertain future) with the lycanthropic dilemma, whether to repress his inner beast or indulge his innermost desires. On the one hand the film argues the need for young people to take charge of their lives and not follow the herd, but acknowledges following their impulses can have consequences for those they love. Turning his back on decades of slasher film clichés, Nimziki stages an intriguing sex scene wherein one character offers herself to Will in a bid to liberate his tortured soul. Instead of equating sex with death, the film evokes the early Romantic concept of sex being the most meaningful connection one can forge with another person, something not to be treated frivolously, which obviously echoes Stephanie Meyer’s work.
There are some lapses into the unintentionally comic (lisping Frenchman Roland ranks among the screen’s silliest school bullies, while the wolf pack are rather fey boy band rejects) and in its bid for a sequel the film leaves some loose ends. The low budget confines the werewolves on-screen appearance to the third act (via impressive costumes instead of sloppy CGI), but few need complain since Nimziki’s assured directon yields solid, scary set-pieces without sacrificing the nuances of a smart script that asks compelling questions. While leading man Landon Liboiron is solid without bringing as much gusto to the material as he could have, Casino Royale actress Ivana Milicevic and an impressive Lindsey Shaw offer magnetic interpretations of atypical, nicely faceted roles. Nimziki plays a compelling game, drawing us down one particular plot direction before turning everything we think we know completely on its head. Thereafter the suspense ratchets up a notch with the heroes trapped on school grounds with the werewolves, the discovery of a cave storing future victims (a blatant steal from Aliens (1986)) and a clever climax that cross-cuts the Freudian werewolf on werewolf battle with a graduation speech delivered by the class valedictorian. Given the series last bowed out with the risible Howling: New Moon Rising (1995), The Howling Reborn marks a quantum leap in the right direction.