Not many horror franchises drastically improve by the fifth entry, but things could not get much worse than the last three Howling sequels. Going straight to video, Howling V: The Rebirth nevertheless strikes a promisingly ominous opening note. After a creepy credits sequence with a Rosemary’s Baby style rocking cradle, the prologue opens in Hungary, 1489 where a castle full of aristocrats commit mass suicide to stave off the werewolf curse. It is all in vain however, as the dying lord and his wife hear the cries of their forgotten baby. Five hundred years later, their sinister descendant Count Istvan (Phil Davis) invites ten guests to spend the night at his ancestral home in Budapest. Troubled novelist Gail Cameron (Stephanie Faulkner), ace photographer David Gillespie (Ben Cole), airhead actress Marylou Summers (Elizabeth Shé), womanising tennis pro Jonathan Lane (Mark Sivertson), ponytailed rock star Ray Price (Clive Turner, who also wrote the script), abrasive Dr. Catherine Peake (Victoria Catlin), Scandinavian movie star Anna (Mary Stavin), wealthy playboy Richard Hamilton (William Shockley) and the (otherwise nameless) Professor (Nigel Triffitt) have seemingly little in common, except all bear the same suspicious birthmark on their forearms. One by one, the guests fall victim to a mysterious beast lurking in the shadows as it becomes clear one of them is the werewolf.
With Howling V, director Neal Sundström and co-scripters Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe essentially rework the premise of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, itself adapted many times for the screen with varying degrees of success. The guess-the-werewolf game had precedent in The Beast Must Die (1974) and this is similarly fun, a throwback to the unpretentious monster movies Hammer and Amicus made twenty years before. Although the hilariously overwrought synth score supplied by The Factory (?) adds a Scooby-Doo vibe with its mock-Latin chorus, cinematographer Arledge Amenaki milks the gothic setting for maximum atmosphere while Sundström confines the werewolf to the shadows. Partly, one suspects, because the budget would not stretch to the kind of show-stopping monster makeup found in the original, but also through a sincere and successful attempt to yoke suspense using light and shadow, hushed whispers and shock edits.
All the Howling sequels struggle to ape the delicate balance of horror and comedy Joe Dante achieved in the original. Aside from the inane chatter that takes up screen-time between killings, Howling V’s major misfires include the irksome comedy supplied by dim bulb Marylou whose eye-rolling antics strain the patience of characters and viewers alike. Strangely, Elizabeth Shé returned as Marylou in the next two sequels for reasons none too clear, although she does supply fan-pleasing nudity here. Also shedding her clothes in the name of tawdry exploitation is Mary Stavin, formerly Miss World 1977 and also a Bond girl in both Octopussy (1983) and A View To A Kill (1985) besides recording the infamous fitness album Shape Up and Dance with football legend George Best. Among the eclectic ensemble: Victoria Catlin was a regular on Twin Peaks (where Stavin guest starred), Ben Cole appeared in similarly trashy horror efforts like Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985) and Edge of Sanity (1988), and William Shockley was a reoccurring character in the even more horrific Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Shudder... By far the biggest surprise comes from seeing Phil Davis, later stalwart of British social realist drama, snarling as the shifty aristocrat.
The script pays lip service to some Mario Bava-esque themes regarding reality and illusion, surface appearances and secret intentions, but proves better off sticking to the basic formula of characters creeping about dusty dungeons and cobwebbed catacombs. Who lives and who dies proves a genuine surprise. After a campy start, events grow steadily more suspenseful culminating in a tense finale with one lone survivor hovering their gun between two suspected werewolves, but the jokey non-ending is rather a damp squib.