In a competition of two awesomely cheesy titles, it’s tough to pick a winner between Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch and Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. They’re both equally accurate descriptions, in a nutshell, of Philippe Mora’s 1985 horror film, a sequel to the 1981 werewolf genre classic The Howling by Joe Dante. They both suggest a certain abandon for good taste, although neither really hits at the selling point of the sequel, which was savaged by critics at the time of its release before developing a mild cult fandom for its inherent ’80s-ness, along with a hilarious central performance by the late Christopher Lee as one of the main characters—not to mention the heaving bosoms of scream queen Sybil Danning as the werewolf queen. Your Sister Is a Werewolf was ultimately the American title, but in my mind it’s Christopher Lee vs. The Breast Werewolves.
Today, Shout’s Scream Factory will give Howling II a Blu-Ray release, adding yet another title to the list for Christopher Lee completionists who want to own every entry in the great actor’s filmography. Already feeling nostalgic about the actor’s legacy, and happy for an excuse to rewatch a vintage bit of ’80s horror, we took advantage of the opportunity to chat with French-born Australian director Philippe Mora about memories of the project and working alongside Lee.
Paste: How did the concept of Howling II first take shape?
Philippe Mora: Well, the producer was a friend of mine, John Daly, a rather infamous producer who did Terminator among other things. I had done a movie for him called A Breed Apart, and he offered me Howling II. But really, I needed a new station wagon at the time, so i agreed to do Howling II.
Actually, what I found fascinating about it was not the script at all. Because in many ways, a sequel for a director is a no-win situation. The fans of the first film aren’t going to like you if you make a different film, but if you don’t make a different film, what’s the point? I opted to go completely different. But the thing that really fascinated me was that John had a deal to shoot the film behind the Iron Curtain, and I thought that would be fascinating. He says “It will be a Czech crew of 140, and I’ll give you four interpreters; go to Prague and see what happens.” The making of the film is really more interesting than the film itself! We were under surveillance by the local police and government the whole time.
Paste: So had you even seen the original Howling at that point?
Mora: You know what, I actually hadn’t seen it and thought maybe I shouldn’t see it. I didn’t end up seeing it until afterward because I didn’t want any unintentional copying to happen.
Paste: My biggest surprise while doing research is that you had actually already worked with Christopher Lee before in The Return of Captain Invincible. So you two already had history together.
Mora: We actually became great mates for a variety of reasons. It started with that film. In that movie he actually does this fantastic musical number, written by a guy from The Rocky Horror Picture Show called “Name Your Poison,” where he’s trying to tempt the hero into having a drink. Before we made Captain Invincible, no superhero had problems, but we made him an alcoholic, and that was a brand new thing. Christopher told me later how much he loved that scene, because he really loved singing. I saw his sense of humor here; it’s a fantastic thing that not many people knew about him.
Paste: Well there’s that scene in Howling II in the nightclub where he puts on those ridiculous sunglasses and it’s just hilarious because he’s otherwise so regal looking.
Mora: Haha, exactly. Christopher knew what his image was. He had a very dry sense of humor, and he knew what was funny.
Mora: Now, the other thing that brought us together was that we were both World War II buffs in our own ways. His military service was a whole side of Christopher that was largely unknown because he couldn’t really talk about it, but after the war he was a full-on Nazi hunter and he did some incredible things. I think that’s why he was so great in all those horror films—he had the gravitas because he had seen such horrors in real life. I’m convinced that this permeates his performances. He told me once that he put the noose around the neck of multiple Nazis. But at the same time, this guy is an opera singer, he could sing Wagner. But you didn’t want to ask him to do that, because once he started he was not going to stop.
Paste: It always seems, when I read about him, that he had a complicated relationship with playing horror roles. He was great at it, but seemed to wish he wasn’t typecast.
Mora: Well, he was a very practical guy, a career actor, and knew he had that niche. His sense of humor got him through that stuff, but he certainly enjoyed playing Dracula most of the time, there’s no doubt about that. To say that he rued the horror roles is probably the right word sometimes, but he was a very complex, rounded individual who led such a full life.
Paste: Back to Howling II. Who did the gore and costume effects on this one? They’re … distinctive?
Mora: Okay, so we were behind the Iron Curtain, and we’re about to start filming, and the werewolf costume stuff hadn’t arrived yet. So I call John and say “Where are our costumes?” A couple of days later, the crates arrive from LA, from 20th Century Fox, with Planet of the Apes written on them, and they’re monkey suits from that series! I call John and said “Everyone knows Howling II is about werewolves, and these are monkey suits!” And Christopher Lee happened to overhear all this, and he says “My dear boy, I have an idea for you. Do a close-up on me tomorrow, and I will explain to the camera that before man turns into a wolf he goes through a monkey phase.”
Paste: How did Reb Brown get brought in? He’s sort of B-movie famous, between Yor, the Hunter from the Future and Space Mutiny on MST3k.
Mora: I thought this movie was going to be so far-out and crazy that I needed a rock solid Mr. Everyman hero. I had seen Reb in a movie called Big Wednesday. While working with him, you learned that inside that career there’s actually a really good actor. I cast him in Death of a Soldier, where he plays a psycho—it’s a true story, and Reb was absolutely fantastic in that film in this full-on performance as a psychotic killer.
Paste: Most ’80s horror flicks like this would not still have an audience today. What is the factor that makes one of them like Howling II a potential cult classic?
Mora: Well, I think when you’re making something like this, you have to keep a straight face. If you let the audience in on the joke too much, it undermines it. Howling II is done pretty straight—my next sequel, Howling III: The Marsupials is less so. There’s a very fine line that has followed me all my career between satire and camp, but the mass audience doesn’t always understand satire—they just think it’s a bad movie. I found that a lot over the years. Believe it or not, a lot of people didn’t realize Marsupials was a gag, a comedy, because it was satire.
Paste: I need to know the story behind this movie’s end credits. They’re the most gratuitously sexual credits of all time. The scene with Sybil Danning’s top ripping off is repeated 17 times in three minutes of credits.
Mora: Haha, yes, it’s become rather infamous. What happened was, I delivered my cut, and at the end we put some bloopers and I had the scene with Sybil doing that a couple times and we cut to the werewolves with their eyes opening wide and it was funny.
And then I got a call after it was mostly complete, and they said “Well that’s funny, do you mind if we add a few more?” I never thought that they’d have Sybil ripping her shirt off 17 times. It was ridiculous, but I didn’t think it would become iconic. Originally Sybil was mortified of course, but now she’s come to like it.
Paste: Compared to Howling III, which of the two are you more proud of?
Mora: I think I prefer Howling III by a bit because it was entirely my script, but I like Howling II because it was an unforgettable life experience to make a movie behind the Iron Curtain. During one scene, we even desecrated the tomb of King Wenceslaus in Prague! The city offered to let us shoot in this sacred place, this crypt, but I was concerned about infringing on this holy shrine, right? But the priests said it was all right because they’d already been trying to get a Bishop from the Vatican to visit the site and reconsecrate it for years. So when we desecrated it, it gave them a reason to send up that Bishop.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.