Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic
My attention span isn’t what it should be. As such, I rarely watch a movie from start to finish. If the action drags, if I start to feel antsy, I’ll pause it and walk away. I tally those “time outs” at the end of the column, so you’ll know how often the movie is likely to bore you. That is, if you’re anything like me. – “The Distracted Critic”
The movie trailer for 2015’s HOWL impressed me when I stumbled upon it. I forget how it came about. Probably looking up the trailer for something else, and then following suggested links down their rabbit hole. It’s how I find a lot of these movies, to be honest.
Once in a while, I come across something with real promise. Like this one.
HOWL opens at a train station. A train pulls in to disembark, and the last one out is the guard, who looks exhausted. This is Joe (Ed Speleers, from the BBC phenomenon DOWNTON ABBEY and A LONELY PLACE TO DIE, 2011). He walks past the Waterloo Station sign, makes his way to the employee section, opens his locker, and finds an envelope addressed to him. His excitement is dashed when he sees that he didn’t get the promotion he put in for. David (Brett Goldstein) shows up, points to his new jacket clearly designating him “Supervisor,” and proceeds to lay into Joe for not giving out penalty fines on his runs. On top of that, Joe is informed that he’ll need to make his way back out because he’s pulling a double shift.
On the late train, Joe starts making his rounds, checking the tickets of the passengers. We meet Nina (Rosie Day, THE SEASONING HOUSE, 2012) who’s too engrossed in her phone call to acknowledge him, Matthew (Amit Shah), a passenger after my own heart with his nose buried in a book, and Billy (Sam Gittins), the standoffish stranger who exudes an air of danger. Another passenger is Kate (Shauna Macdonald, Sarah in THE DESCENT 1 & 2), who can’t find her ticket. Joe charges her the full price for a one-way ticket, citing regulations. She gives him extra rations of grief about it.
Job done, he heads toward the back of the train, where he discovers Ellen (Holly Weston) is working the train with him. Joe is interested in her and asks her out, to which she declines carefully. Another passenger, Paul (Calvin Dean), watches the whole conversation, then buddies up to Joe.
Joe finds a quiet car and leans back in a seat. He’s going to take a nap now. We get some great shots of the rainy night, the train blowing past, the full moon overhead… and the train crashes and brakes hard, sparks flying. They come to a stop in the middle of a forest, and the power cuts out.
Joe heads for the passenger cars, but first comes upon Ellen, who’s serving cart has overturned. Adrian (Elliot Cowan), a suave businessman, is helping Ellen clean up while making her laugh. There’s a lot more going on than just helping. Joe goes to check on the passengers and finds Nina in a panic, running from window to window.
He settles everyone down, gets everyone seated, and then goes to phone the driver. There’s no answer, because the driver (Sean Pertwee, EVENT HORIZON, 1997, and DOG SOLDIERS, 2002) has left the train to assess the damage. He finds a deer beneath the trains wheels and tries to pull it free to no avail. Brush moves in the forest around him and he is attacked.
The passengers whine that there’s no news, Joe and Ellen make their way into the engine, and find it deserted. Joe phones headquarters and is told it’s a crazy night. Trees are down everywhere and the nearest estimate for help is four hours.
The passengers do not take this news well. In typical horror-movie fashion, Adrian leads a revolt, demanding that they desert the train and walk to the station, a trip of two miles if they follow the tracks. Joe cites regulations, tells them he’ll lose his job if they leave the train, but caves when Ellen wants to make the trip as well.
It doesn’t take long before things in the woods make themselves known. A few moments later, Joe and Ellen stumble across what remains of the driver’s body. The group is chased back to the train, but one of them is attacked and bitten before re-entering.
It takes only moments for panic to settle in.
I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did. The writing team of Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler have created a group of real-feeling characters to people the story. Yes, a few of them seem like stereotypes at first blush, but each of them stretches outside their expected boundaries at some point. Plot-wise, though, the pair used a lot of tropes to put their plot together, resulting in a been-there, seen-that feeling for the entire run time. I watched it with my kids, and, unbidden, they correctly predicted the survivors of the film ten minutes in. They haven’t seen many horror movies, either.
Director Paul Hyett (THE SEASONING HOUSE, 2012) has done a very good job with what he’s been given to work with. The suspense is thick, the interactions between the characters are real and nuanced, and he uses the camera’s position and framing to bring out the danger inherent in their situation. The cinematography is arresting without being overly serious… some of the shots almost seem like comic book panels.
The makeup effects seem down-played for the most part, but they were still very effective.
The predictability of the plot became a problem before long. Part of what makes a memorable movie for me is being surprised by twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I didn’t get any of that here. I found the whole thing a mixed bag. Probably not something to steer clear of, but maybe not something to hunt down, either. I came down right in the middle of the road with this one.
I give HOWL two and a half knives.
And one time out!
© Copyright 2018 by Paul McMahon