NEW MOON RISING: How to Find Your Bliss and (Almost) Kill a Franchise

German DVD cover: roughly translated, “The Animal Is Back!” (IMDB)

One of the principal defining characteristics of the Howling franchise — other than werewolves, of course — is the fact that hardly any of the films bear any resemblance to any of the others. Not only are they largely unrelated from a narrative standpoint, but there never seems to be an attempt made at establishing a distinctive “house style.” Director Phillippe Mora gave parts 2 and 3 some stylistic consistency, but otherwise one would be hard-pressed to come up with anything other than the lycanthropes that define what a Howling movie is. This is especially perplexing given that most of the films in the series were executive produced by Steven A. Lane (who produced Howling 1–6) and Robert Pringle (who produced Howling 2–6), who apparently offered little in the way of artistic steering of the ship across the various films. It comes as no surprise then that the only film in the series neither of them had a hand in is just as unrecognizable as a “Howling movie” as any of the others. What is surprising is that it was produced, directed by, and starred someone who would have major impact on the franchise in that he damn near killed it.

Clive Turner first became a part of the Howling world as a co-producer on Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, a new adaptation of Gary Brandner’s novel that inspired the first film in the series. Director John Hough later claimed he and Turner clashed almost constantly and that Turner shot a large amount of footage without Hough’s involvement, resulting in a final cut that bore little resemblance to the film Hough was making. Turner’s vision was apparently a much closer adaptation of Brandner’s original novel than Joe Dante’s classic film that kicked off the series. Turner had a little cameo as a tow truck driver in Howling IV, but when he returned for Howling V: The Rebirth he was bumped up from a cameo to comic relief as the character “Ray Price.” He produced the film as well as acted in it, and despite his reported obsession with making Howling IV as close to Brandner’s novel as possible, Howling V has absolutely no ties to the previous films in the series or Brandner’s books.

Elizabeth Shé in HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH (Alchetron)

Only one cast member from Howling V appeared in Howling VI: The Freaks. Elizabeth Shé played the lead role of Marylou Summers in The Rebirth, but she only appears briefly in The Freaks and has no lines, establishing an extremely tenuous connection between the two films. If it were not for the film’s credits, viewers would probably have completely missed the fact that her character had returned. Clive Turner was suspiciously MIA for The Freaks, but when he returned to the Howling series he seemed to be determined to leave his mark in a big way. There is no doubt he succeeded, but probably not quite how he had planned.

Put plainly, Howling: New Moon Rising is one of the most inexplicable and misguided franchise horror films in history. Turner attempts to wrangle the unrelated previous three films into a single continuity while almost entirely ignoring the action of The Freaks, a feat accomplished by using good-sized chunks of footage from The Original Nightmare and The Rebirth. Romy Windsor from Howling IV reprised her role as Marie Adams, and Turner cast himself as the male lead “Ted Smith.” This is where the situation starts to become very confusing, because Turner is playing the same character he played in Howling V (and, as we will later learn, Howling IV). In The Rebirth his character was named “Ray Price.” It seems equally possible that Turner either didn’t remember the character’s name or didn’t care. His attention was focused elsewhere.

Pioneertown sign in 2010 (Offbeat Frontier)

New Moon Rising appears to have been designed from the ground up as a showcase for Pioneertown, California and the people who lived there. Built in the 1940s as a standing “Old West town” set for film and television productions, Pioneertown eventually became an unincorporated community of its own. Most of the action of New Moon Rising takes place at Pappy + Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a real bar and music venue founded by Claude “Pappy” Allen and his wife Harriet that is still putting on shows to this day and even appeared in the film Ingrid Goes West (2017). Turner cast many denizens of Pioneertown as characters who are more or less themselves, with the same names and some of the same occupations. The end credits even state: “The events depicted in this motion picture are fictitious. The characters depicted in Pioneer Town are real.” This could have been a cost-saving measure — enthusiastic local non-actors would be cheaper to hire than SAG members — but it also seems possible that Turner just liked the company of these people so much he wanted to spend as much time with them as he could. It likely didn’t hurt that most of their acting was slightly more amateurish than Turner’s own, making him look a bit more professional by comparison.

There are two main parallel stories in the film. The first is kicked off when a skeleton in a dress and blonde wig is found in the desert by three very bored-looking gentlemen with a shovel. A Detective (John Ramsden) visits the men and then goes to visit a priest, Father John (John Huff). It is reasonable to assume that we never hear the Detective’s first name in the film because it would have been awkward for both of these characters to be named “John.” For some reason Detective tells Father John about the body found in the desert and then shows him a VHS copy of Howling VI, pointing out who he believes to be the victim found in the desert as well as a potential suspect: Marylou Summers from Howling V (Elizabeth Shé in her Howling VI cameo appearance). Father John tells Detective the story of Howling V while we watch footage from the film play out. In the midst of this recap, he drops a puzzling bit of information regarding how the assembled characters in that film tried to determine who the killer among them was: “Ted, the only Australian, became the fall guy, and he was never seen again.” Again, this character’s name was “Ray” in the previous film, and why everyone would assume “the only Australian” was the murderer is left unexplained. Father John claims it will soon be three years since the events of Howling V and that after three years a new werewolf becomes “engorged with an awesome new power.” Detective wonders how Father John knows so much about werewolves, but Father John tersely dismisses his question: “I’ve always known the theories of werewolves!”

Father John later receives a phone call from Marie from Howling IV. He visits her home where she tells him the story of that film, accompanied by copious footage from it (including its gruesome werewolf transformation sequence). Father John shows her a picture of Marylou, but Marie doesn’t recognize her. She does, however, recognize a picture of Ted — cut to the shot of Clive Turner’s cameo as an unnamed tow truck driver Marie nearly ran over in Howling IV. This information, and the fact that Father John’s addled housekeeper Sybil (Sybil Ramsden, possibly the wife of the actor playing Detective?) is Ted’s mother and tells them Ted is living in Barstow, finally leads Father John and Detective to Pioneertown where they question Ted about the recent spate of murders that began after he came to town. At this point all narrative cohesion in New Moon Rising collapses, so it’s worth going back to recap what Ted has been doing the whole movie before wading into that.

Ted (Clive Turner) hard at work. (Wicked Horror)

Ted arrives in Pioneertown and gets a gig doing odd jobs at Pappy + Harriet’s. His entire interview for this is a sequence in which he trades awful puns with Jim the bartender (Jim Lozano) and regular Brock (Jim Brock)— Ted complains that he previously suffered from “hip-atitis,” Jim warns him about the dangers of “knee-monia,” Brock is most worried about “small-cocks,” etc. etc. — establishing the dominant mode of Ted’s story as one of good-natured ribbing. There is a lot of line dancing in a very dark room. Harriet performs a few songs, and Pappy gets to sing one, too. Ted tells countless embarrassing dad jokes, such as: “I’m into necrophilia, S&M, and bestiality, but I think I’m flogging a dead horse.” He enters into a tentative flirtation with lonely widow Eveanne (Sally Harkham), which causes protective fellow coworker Bonnie (Bonnie Lagassa) to regard him warily. In his motel room alone at night, Ted speaks into a tape recorder about the town and the people who live there. Perhaps he is not who he claims to be? Bodies begin to pile up after sequences of near-indecipherable bright red first-person Werewolf Vision. Running jokes include nobody knowing who George Jones is, Pappy sneaking booze when Harriet is not looking, and a man named Jack (Jack Holder) who wears a series of ugly shirts. Ted makes a pot of chili that causes handyman Jaro (Jaro Prikopsky) to fart so much no one can stay inside the bar with him. Eventually someone finds one of Ted’s tapes and plays it at a bonfire after the whole town performs a rousing rendition of a song titled “Prescription Beer.” Ted is embarrassed and sad that he thinks the Pioneertown folk are angry at him. Then Detective and Father John arrive to question him, and all narrative cohesion in New Moon Rising collapses.

Up to this point, New Moon Rising has been weirdly focused on lengthy country & western music interludes and loads of footage from other movies. More than anything, it has felt something like half of a no-budget sequel to Tender Mercies cut together with footage from Howling sequels for almost no discernible reason. However, what follows the scene of Ted’s interrogation pushes New Moon Rising into the realm of paracinematic non-sense. Father John and Detective sit in a room and discuss the whole mystery as they have put it together, but parts of this recap include things that supposedly took place in previous scenes that we did not see happen in those scenes. At one point Father John exclaims “Ted has confessed he is the werewolf!” There is then a flashback to Ted telling Father John and Detective the story of how he escaped the castle in Howling V. Why was this not shown to us during the previous interrogation scene? Further, why do the men then discuss a very important major scene that happened between the previous scene and this one that was entirely absent from the movie? We learn in a series of very brief “flashbacks” that just before the scene we are currently watching, Ted escaped his motel room but was caught, and Jaro was murdered in broad daylight by the werewolf to frame Ted and turn the townspeople against him.

NEW MOON RISING’s CGI transformation. (MUBI)

As if these narrative ruptures weren’t disorienting enough, this scene also contains some shocking revelations about werewolves. Not only do they change from human to wolf monster under the full moon, but they can assume the form of other people at will. They also have the power of mind control. Our heroes have somehow determined that Marylou from Howling V is in Pioneertown and has assumed the identity of one of the townspeople. With her mind control powers, she has used Marie to manipulate Father John so Marylou could live long enough to gain her full werewolf powers. Time is running out, and soon she will be unstoppable — except for fire and silver bullets, both of which have been established can kill her as they have killed numerous werewolves in previous Howling movies. In any case, can Marylou be found and killed before Pioneertown is doomed to bloody death at the hands of a fully engorged wolf woman?

Considering how much affection Turner clearly has for Pioneertown and its residents, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out the answer to that question. Marylou is trapped in an elaborate trick orchestrated by Father John, Detective, and Ted. When Ted asks Marylou what happened to the young woman whose identity she stole, she callously replies “She died in the hospital, and she wasn’t very happy about it.” Marylou finally transforms about one minute before the end credits roll — an incredibly cheap CGI “morph” effect deeply put to shame by the full practical fx transformation scene from Howling IV shown earlier in the movie — and all of Pioneertown guns her down in her yellow blouse and werewolf head. Everyone heads to Pappy + Harriet’s for a post-monster killing/”Sorry we thought you were the murderer, Ted” jamboree where Ted is invited on stage to sing a verse of a song with new lyrics about werewolves and stuff. Then the credits roll and nobody makes another Howling movie for about 15 years.

THE HOWLING: REBORN (IMDB)

To this day, New Moon Rising is the only entry in the Howling franchise that has never been released on DVD in the United States, and it is also unavailable on any streaming platform. The Hellraiser franchise provides a helpful illustration of just how strange this is: every single one of those films is available on VOD, and even 2005's Hellworld has been released on Blu-ray. New Moon Rising was released on VHS and played cable in the late 90s and into the 2000s, but otherwise it has all but disappeared. Another disappearing act was pulled by Clive Turner, who seems to have vanished from the film industry entirely. When the franchise finally returned with The Howling: Reborn in 2011 — basically a CW teen werewolf soap opera pilot based on Brandner’s second Howling book, and completely unrelated to the previous films — Turner’s name was nowhere to be found. Steven A. Lane and Robert Pringle, executive producers on the pre-New Moon Rising films in the series, were back in the saddle. There has been no news since Reborn regarding any further film projects in the Howling series, although a comic book sequel to the original film is due out this year. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if New Moon Rising didn’t kill The Howling as a film franchise, nothing will.

But the question remains: Where is Clive Turner today? He was credited as an executive producer with Steven A. Lane and Robert Pringle on The Lawnmower Man(1992) and in 1996 was credited as executive producer — once again alongside Lane and Pringle — on The Lawnmower Man 2. This would have been after Turner had not been involved in the production of Howling VI and Lane and Pringle were not involved with New Moon Rising, so it’s not hard to imagine the men may have had an uneasy working relationship by that time. He has not had any producing credits since The Lawnmower Man 2, and New Moon Rising remains his only directorial credit to date. There’s no doubt that as a werewolf movie, New Moon Rising is one of the worst. It’s definitely the worst of the Howling series. But as a love letter to Pioneertown and the good-timin’ folks who lived there, it has the unique charm of a bunch of people who enjoy each other’s company just messing around in front of the camera. If you cut out all the werewolf stuff, you’ve got a nice little snapshot of what life was like in Pioneertown in the early 1990s. The film is dedicated to “Pappy” Allen, “a true country and western legend,” who passed away in 1994 before the film was completed.

Autographed photo of “Pappy” Allen. (KCET)

Perhaps Clive Turner retired to Pioneertown to live out the rest of his days drinking cold beer, listening to live music, and taking it easy with the other misfits and vagabonds who he loved so much. Whether it’s true or not, it’s nice to think that Turner felt such a kinship with Pioneertown that he was more than happy to torpedo his filmmaking career rather than leave this paradise he had found out in the Inland Empire. Wherever Turner has ended up, hopefully he makes it back to Pioneertown to visit whenever he gets a chance. Maybe he brings a copy of New Moon Rising with him so he can watch it with the residents of the town who were in the movie that still live there, and they laugh and drink and sing along with all the songs in the movie and tell stories about Brock and Jim and Paul’s antics and bust Turner’s balls over the werewolf scenes. All of that might not mean much for horror history or Howling fandom, but anyone should be so lucky that the end of their filmmaking career would be the discovery of instant lifelong friends in a place you never want to leave.

Corrections/clarifications from Richard Albiston, president of Cannon Films Ltd. and author of the upcoming book Beyond the Howling (a comprehensive history of the franchise):

  1. Clive Turner actually was involved with Howling VI: The Freaks as post-production supervisor.
  2. The detective in the film is actually played by Ernest Kester, not John Ramsden. Ramsden was cut out of the film, but his credit remains. According to Mr. Albiston, this was due to “hasty re-shoots way into the post-production stage.”
  3. New Moon Rising was planned from its inception to be the end of the franchise. Mr. Albiston explains: “…it was decided when Howling VI was being made that The Freaks would be a two-parter from two scripts by Kevin Rock, when (The Freaks) didn’t make so much money on VHS, the sequel was scrapped. Later, the studio (Allied Vision, which had some success with The Lawnmower Man and Communion) were cash strapped and wanted to make Howling VII and Lawnmower Man 2 to hopefully save the company. Bob Pringle and Steven Lane weren’t involved as they didn’t think the franchise had anywhere to go, but leased the name again as they had done previously, leaving the franchise in the hands of studio head Ed Simons and Clive Turner. So really (New Moon Rising) was always going to be the last one.”
  4. Regarding the burning question of where Clive Turner (who Mr. Albiston describes as “a great guy and really funny”) is today, Mr. Albiston reports that Turner “retired back home to Australia after the collapse of Allied Vision.” I still sincerely hope he gets back to Pioneertown every once in a while!

(This piece was written for Daily Grindhouse’s Howling week: http://dailygrindhouse.com/thewire/howling-week-new-moon-rising-find-bliss-almost-kill-franchise/)


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