Howling III: The Marsupials is a weird and inspired gulp of fresh air. I said it and I mean it. You could watch 400 movies in a year and never see another thing like it. Devoid of any ties to the previous films, you’ve got to hand it to director Philippe Mora for refusing to tread any kind of familiar territory with this–an undeniably fresh take on the werewolf genre.
How’s this for a plot? The United States government hires college professor Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto) to prove the existence of werewolves after the CIA intercepts a transmission from Siberia that warns Russia of ongoing lycanthrope attacks.
On the other side of the world, a young Australian werewolf, Jerboa (the lovely Imogen Annesley), escapes her aboriginal tribe and flees to Sydney where she’s discovered by up-and-coming movie producer Donnie Martin (“two first names,” Jerboa observes). Jerboa winds up taking a bit part in Donnie’s current project, the cheapo horror flick “Shape Shifters part 8,” and that’s when things get really complicated. Jerboa’s animal side is revealed, and this attracts the attention of not only the sympathetic Beckmeyer, but also a government hellbent on exterminating all werewolves.
Also tossed into this cocktail is a trio of bounty hunting werewolf nuns, a Russian werewolf ballerina, a director who looks like Alfred Hitchcock, a newborn marsupial werewolf (that lives inside Jerboa’s pouch), and even an attack by a skeleton werewolf.
And no, I’m not making any of this up.
Howling III: The Marsupials is short on horror, but that was never the point. Mora handles the proceedings with a big grin as he’s not taking any of this too seriously. Sure, the special effects are none too convincing, but there’s plenty of imaginative stuff on display. A knowing wink to played out bladder FX, the dangers of lingering too long on your mechanical wolf head, the aforementioned skeleton wolf attack, all capped by some truly fantastic wolf make-up. Sure, this is a long way from Rob Bottin’s state-of-the-art work showcased in Joe Dante’s brilliant original, but that doesn’t make Roger Cowland’s FX work any less fun.
And this outre offering manages to suck you in from the start with an ambitious and sprawling story that never lets up.
Perhaps Howling III: The Marsupials benefits most from being one of the weirdest things you’re ever apt to see, but there’s more to it than that. Mora assembles a relatively unknown cast consisting of very agreeable performers. The blooming romances between Donny and Jerboa, as well as Beckmeyer and Olga (the Russkie ballerina) are oddly engaging thanks in no small part to the sincerity of the actors like Annesley, Otto, and Leigh Biolos as the smitten producer. Adding more likability to the fray is Max Fairchild as the hulking leader of the aborigines, and Burnham Burnham in a hilarious (albeit brief) role as a bushman (the dialogue during his death scene is one of my favorite exchanges in any film ever).
The film itself is essentially a big joke, but it succeeds because the characters are never in on it. The humor throughout isn’t forced. A great deal of the laughs are derived from the sheer goofiness of the scenarios. At one point in the film, the Russian ballerina transforms into a werewolf during a dance session and winds up gnawing on a fellow ballerina. I’ve sat in screenings where the most cynical viewers can barely keep the pssshhhs from flying out of their mouths, never realizing that such absurdity is entirely the point.
This comes off as pure unintended hokum to a segment of its cult-saturated audience, meaning that Mora’s troll game is strong. Couple the aforementioned scenarios with the deadpan dialogue found throughout and it’s hard to understand how so many miss the point. For example, when Jerboa is fleeing from home on a bus, she’s comforted by another woman who asks why she hates her home village.
“Because my stepfather tried to rape me and he’s a werewolf.”
Couple some great lines with a handful of catchy-yet-obscure 80’s pop songs (a soundtrack was released but I’ve never been able to find it) and the overall weirdness of the script (at one point, the pope declares the persecution of werewolves inhumane) and you have one of the most bizarre exercises in 1980s filmmaking. Does bizarre automatically render it good? Not at all, but as I’ve said, I think there’s plenty about Howling III: The Marsupials to adore. This is the kind film that needs to be viewed more than once in order to properly realize just how strange it truly is.
This was given a PG-13 rating by the MPAA and I’m not sure it would receive that mercy today. It is a relatively tame movie, but feels rife with the “wrong” kind of tameness. There’s still a considerable amount of sex (very mild), nudity (rather brief), and violence (relatively bloodless). As we evolve into a world where PG-13 means endless but bloodless violence, with one obligatory “fuck” tossed in for good measure, it’s the skin show here that makes Howling III: The Marsupials feel like a relic. It would be interesting to see how something similar would fare before the MPAA today, though I distinctly recall feeling like I was “pulling one over” on my parents by enjoying this smorgasbord of PG-13 exploitation as a kid.
Howling III: The Marsupials is sprinkled with subtle nods to An American Werewolf in London, the original Howling, and Mora’s own The Beast Within (another werewolf film of sorts). That’s just to name a few. References reinforce the idea that Mora knows full well what his film is beholden to. More attentive viewers will enjoy keeping an eye out for some cleverly disguised references to other genre films as well as an amusing cameo by Australian comedian Dame Edna (Barry Humphries).
Everything about Howling III: The Marsupials makes it a memorable effort. The obscure storyline (very loosely based upon Gary Brandner’s novel “The Howling III–Echoes,” where a young werewolf escapes from his pack), the strange humor, and special effects that run the gamut from good (the massive wolf that looks more like a pig is a leftover prop from the film Razorback) to unconvincing. This film’s 97 minute running time is practically bursting at the seams with ambition, which makes it a real anomaly in the world of low-budget sequels.
It’s tough to recommend Howling III: The Marsupials with a guarantee of enjoyment. Undoubtedly, there are people out there that have no problem dismissing this film (and the whole series for that matter). I see where this could agitate people searching for a more traditional form of horror entertainment. Some people just don’t like humor mixed into their horror. But I’d argue that Howling III: The Marsupials is the only sequel in the series to find a tone somewhat similar to the John Sayles-scripted original. Perhaps its parody is a little more overt as well as covert, never as deftly woven through a horror movie landscape, but the sardonicism remains.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the wild world of sequels is when they break from the traditions of their predecessors in the interest of doing something different. Whether we’re talking about A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Halloween III, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre part 2, I love it when a follow-up refuse to cater to expectations. Howling III: The Marsupials is one of the best genre sequels. I feel I must reiterate, however, that this isn’t good simply because it’s weird, it’s great because it somehow works.
I don’t know how director Mora (who also penned the script) came up with such a whacked out premise. It doesn’t take a college degree to know there’s some 1980s Cold War politics in here, although Mora’s message is up for debate. None of that ultimately matters, though, because this film is the red-headed stepchild of the werewolf genre and it’s absolutely worth a look (and a buy) to those with a tolerance and appreciation for the more curious genre films out there.
Howling III: The Marsupials has been available on DVD for years. The one to get was released by Elite Entertainment sometime in the very early 2000s and it was a must-own disc for its time. From the wonderful (but dated) widescreen transfer and 5.1 audio surround mix, Mora’s fantastic audio commentary was really the reason to splurge.
But now we know (thanks to the director’s premature Facebook announcement) that there’s a Blu-ray in the works from Scream Factory. You’d better believe I’ll be plunking down my money for this one. I hope some other folks will be compelled to give Howling III: The Marsupials another chance. It really is a special little movie with a big heart and an even bigger sense of humor. I love every second of it.