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category: Review

Side Street Films: Howl

Friday, October 30, 2015 by

Eden Cinemas’ innovative Side Street Films programme is aimed at showing that there is “more to cinema than Hollywood” – and we couldn’t agree more. Our resident cineaste Shaun Antnin takes a look at the fortnightly offerings from Eden’s artistically oriented programme and decides what they are worth.

Joe (Ed Speleers) is a ticket inspector on a train, and he’s having a bad day. Not only has he just been turned down for a promotion, his smug supervisor has just forced him into doing a ‘red eye’– a journey which finishes after 1AM. Once aboard, his colleague Ellen (Holly Weston) turns down his offer of a drink. Soon after, the train breaks down deep in the middle of a forest… then something happens to the driver. Stranded and with no reception, Joe reluctantly takes it upon himself to ensure the safety of those on board.

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Other than Joe and Ellen, there are eight remaining passengers on the service. Refreshingly, except for a cameo by Sean Pertwee as the driver, there are no stars among them; none of the small cast would be known outside of British soaps and low budget films. Everyone in the film has the look of a real person, which adds to the realism of the setting, adding authenticity to the premise of ordinary people in a seemingly plausible situation being trapped in a distinctly unordinary predicament.

If it hasn’t dawned upon you yet, we are in werewolf territory here. Sensibly, the film only allows fleeting glimpses of the ‘the monster’ until almost midway through, instead it cleverly plays on the claustrophobic tension and vulnerability of ten strangers trapped on a rather small train. After the big reveal, the film changes tack during its second act, gradually morphing into a tale of (self) preservation and co-operation. What ensues is a more conventional gore-fest, where shocks replace the former suspense element. However, its character-centric plot remains intact.

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A train is an innovative setting for such a film, as it offers probably the greatest opportunity for a diverse range of people of both sexes and from different socio-economic backgrounds to occupy the same space. The time of night allows for the believably sparse number of passengers, while retaining a realistic range of characters diverse enough to make the protagonists human enough to care about, empathise with or dislike. Moreover, unlike on a plane, the cast is small enough to ensure that none of the characters are demoted to minor roles, and most are given enough screen time to enable their personas (if not all their backstories) to be developed into more than mere pencil sketches.

This is all admirable work, and it is supported by another vital component. Part of the fun of watching films of this genre is deriving enjoyment from the way in which certain characters die, be it bravely, stupidly, accidentally or by treachery; such pastiches may be manifested in countless ways, but they are inevitable. On this score, the film does not disappoint: not only are the characters realistic, but they meet their end in varied and plausible ways.

Howl

However, genre convention – and human psychology – also dictate that, once the ‘horror’ starts, one begins predicting who ‘will’ and who ‘will not’ survive the impending bloody cull. Although I am not the greatest horror buff, at the end of the film I felt the cull was unduly excessive. Once the kills finally start clocking up, rather than being a case of ‘will anyone die?’ it becomes much more a case of will anyone survive? This also links to my only other qualm.

It is the fashion in these post-post-modern times to expect a twist at the end or, alternatively, for the director to ‘ironically’ not give the audience the satisfaction of such a twist and, instead, deliver a conventional Hollywood ending. In the case of Howl it attempts to deliver both. Without going into detail, I would argue the result is not as satisfying as it deserved to be..

Maybe I took it wrongly and it was only me that saw the ending as anti-climactic. Still it’s a shame that my only criticism of this otherwise fine film related to its end, as this is typically what leaves a lasting impression on the viewer as they leave the cinema. As I was not in a position to conduct a straw poll, I cannot say whether this opinion was shared by my fellow audience members.

In retrospect, I really enjoyed the film, and it was solely the closing scenes which, to my mind, tarnished its effect as a complete work. Don’t let this deter you, though. If you enjoy suspenseful horrors, and see a low budget and lack of famous faces as adding to a film’s appeal, rather than detracting from it, I encourage you to go and see this film!

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