It was 1984. With the imminent election of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War was about to enter into its final stages. Tensions were high, and the already rocky relationship between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Western world was waning. It sounds like the most inopportune time for Hollywood to travel into Soviet territory to shoot a horror film, and yet the fact that it is the very backdrop for Philippe Mora’s 1985 eccentric werewolf film, Howling II, is rather fitting. Nothing about this film makes sense, its kind of its charm. Its spastic, funny (but in a way where the intentionality is hard to tell), dark; you name it and Mora provides it. Howling II is simply a one of a kind film, there is not another werewolf film like it — with the exception of maybe Mora’s follow up Howling III — and there probably will never be another. There really couldn’t be. It’s a complete product of its time and place. Every aspect of the film adds to the overall idiosyncrasy.
Sitting down to speak with the 66-year old, Australian-born artist-turned-director, it becomes clear that Howling II is much more than meets the eye. As he describes, the production was packed to the brim with peculiar moments. Mora is every bit as good of a storyteller off-screen as he is on screen. Despite the years, he recounts, with vivid details, his arrival in (what was then) Czechoslovakia. As the plane lands, the crew is bum rushed by a sea of fanatics. Mora is confused and a little alarmed by the crowds but his passenger, Sir Christopher Lee, is all-to-familiar with the frenzy…after all, the commotion is for him. Its not, however, because of his iconic role for Hammer Films as Dracula, as you may imagine. No, it’s bigger than that. You see, Christopher Lee was a war hero, a famous Nazi hunter renowned in Eastern Europe for his actions during World War II, according to Mora. This was a hero’s welcome; a hero’s welcome that inaugurated the production of what would become the most singular werewolf films ever captured on film.
These stories that literally fill the proverbial pages of Howling II’s history. Speaking with Mora, you get lost in his tales, in their details. Some sound almost too good to be true but there isn’t a hint of insincerity or hesitation in his voice. Another choice story from the bunch, finds the crew desecrating sacred grounds. Mora describes his conversation with the local priest:
Philippe Mora: I questioned him, “the authorities have said that there is no problem, that we can shoot here, but we are going to have werwolves running around being shot by Christopher Lee. We are going to be desecrating the church.” And he said, “fantastic…If you desecrate the church, they’ll have to let us bring a Bishop in to re-consecrate it and we’ve been trying to get a Bishop in for 10 years. I’ll call the Vatican tonight and I’ll call you first thing in the morning.” So I get a call early in the morning at my hotel and I hear, “I spoke with the Vatican…go ahead desecrate it.” [laughs] It was one of my finest moments. Everyone was happy. The communists were delighted, the Vatican was delighted, and the producers thought I was really gonzo. But with Christopher [Lee], I hadn’t told him the background, so he shows up (as always) punctual in the morning and he says to me, “My dear boy, you know this really is blasphemy and desecration of a holy place. Are you sure this is ok?” And I said, “Christopher, I’ve got permission from the Vatican.” [laughs] He was so impressed.
Diabolique: At any point in the shoot, did Christopher think it was too much, Howling II definitely being one of the more bizarre films in his career?
Mora: The only thing he got pissed off about was the cold. It was particularly cold in some of those cemeteries and we were all pissed off about the cold. He was a trooper — and so was Sybil Danning for that matter. We were all — I guess excited is the right word — excited by the actual adventure of shooting a film in this very difficult environment, because we were being watched. Not ‘in your face’ watched, but we knew we were under surveillance because we were from Hollywood and this was during the Cold War.
Diabolique: Were their any problems on the set with local law?
Mora: I’ve talked and written about this before, in the middle of the punk scene — when the punks are going crazy — the AD came to me and said that there was a problem, the studio is being surrounded by police and armed soldiers and there was an officer out there that wanted to talk to me immediately. So I went out there and the translator says, “The general wants to know what you are doing.” And I said, “Well, we are making a werewolf film.” And the translator replies, “What is a werewolf?” I respond [laughs], a werewolf is a man that turns into a wolf when there is a full moon.” And the guy just burst out laughing, he thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard — which was a relief for me, by the way. Then he said, “Look this is illegal. You can’t have a thousand people, let alone young people dressed like this” — they had never seen punks, they didn’t even know they had punks in Prague —, “Everyone has to leave three at a time, every ten minutes but you’ve got a half an hour to finish the shot.” Then when I got back to the hotel, all the punks were outside my hotel…a rousing hero’s welcome. We struck a blow, who knew. [laughs]
Diabolique: You seem like you’d have hours of stories from the production of Howling II.
Mora: House and hours. But, you know, it has its life but I think people don’t understand why its loved and hated. There’s an — you may have seen it — encyclopedia of horror movies called Destroy All Movies and in there, the writer writes that Howling II is the greatest werewolf movie of all time. There is a radical polarized view of this film, but I do think the visceral fact of shooting it in that situation gave it a surreal power — the actual location, the castle.
Diabolique: I’d agree, it has an atmosphere to it quite like nothing else, especially considering the time it was made. At the time of the film, werewolves were getting very popular. Were you aware of the other films that were coming out, is any part of this film a rejection of what you were seeing?
Mora: I wasn’t consciously aware of trend that was going. Basically, once you are making a movie, you just want to get it done. You look at the call sheet in the morning and you go, jeeze let’s get through this. So there is really not time for contemplation…put it that way.
Diabolique: You have a few upcoming projects, can you share with us what they are about?
Mora: Absolutely. So I just finished a documentary called Three Days in Auschwitz and I am starting up a mockumentary, we actually already started shooting it, and its called The Growling. It’s a light release after deal with Auschwitz, believe me. The premise of it is that when I made Howling II and Howling III I did not know that many of the cast were actual werewolves, so it examines that.
Diabolique: Was it fun to revisit these films?
Mora: A lot of fun. I think it is going to be terrific. It is sort of a critique of werewolf films. I was fascinated to find out, by the way, that Curt Siodmak — who wrote The Wolfman in 1941, the first Hollywood werewolf movie, really, which set the standard — was a refuge from Nazi Germany,. The werewolf, for him, was a metaphor for being a Jew and the irrational hatred. Before he died, he gave an interview to the LA Times — it’s a fascinating interview, you can find it on Google — where he says that the Moon was a symbol of the Swastika and when there was a full moon he turned into a horrifying creature. You have sympathy for the werewolf man and its because of that, he doesn’t understand why he is turning into a monster, just like the Jews who didn’t understand why they were being demonized. It’s just a fascinating twist on the whole story but it does explain its power and it explains why, from day one, the monster was sympathetic.
Diabolique: You are, time and time again, drawn to the subject of Nazi Germany, both in documentary, fiction and even genre fiction. Beyond the obvious interest, what is it about this era that causes you to continually go back to it with you work?
Mora: Look, without intellectualizing it too much, I don’t think it was terribly conscious. For example my film Mad Dog Morgan, only recently when I saw it — I’m not sure if you are familiar with the film, but Frank Thring is hunting down Dennis Hopper — and Frank Thring is a Nazi. And I saw it clearly when I saw the film again. He is just like one of the Nazis in The Great Escape or Stalag 17. Look you can’t escape your roots. I grew up with these stories as a kid, because my family escaped the Holocaust, and, without making a meal of it, its there. It has to be there.
Howling II is now available on Blu-Ray via Scream Factory