A proper setting is the foundation of any great horror film. Naturally, film is a complex medium, comprised of sights, sounds, and intangible narrative elements that all come together to create the setting. One could argue that this rather inclusive definition merges atmosphere with setting, but regardless of how you define them, both concepts work hand in hand. So, what makes a good setting for horror? Truthfully, it depends on a variety of factors. That said, most horror films rely on isolation, claustrophobia, darkness, or a combination of the three. In Howl (2015), director Paul Hyett masterfully combines all three elements to create a thoroughly entertaining monster movie.
Howl follows Joe (Ed Speleers), a ticket collector who was recently denied a promotion. Though his shift has ended, a superior bullies Joe into working the last train out of London. He begrudgingly accepts, taking the tickets of passengers who seem to go out of their way to treat him poorly.
As they leave the station, a turbulent storm rocks the train. With each subsequent stop, more and more passengers depart, until only a handful of people remain, including Joe and the tea-trolley girl, Ellen (Holly Weston). Joe has feelings for Ellen, but feels too afraid to make a move.
They depart for their final destination, Eastborough, leading the passengers through a dense forest. When a deer runs across the tracks, the train conductor, Tony (Sean Pertwee) must make an emergency stop, much to the displeasure of the remaining passengers. While Joe tries to keep everyone calm, Tony exits the train to remove the deer carcass from the tracks. As Tony struggles to move the bloody carcass, he is suddenly attacked by an unknown creature.
Tempers flare inside the train when Tony does not return. Many passengers urge Joe to get the train moving. However, he soon discovers that the fuel lines have been cut. Then, the radio antenna breaks, leaving them completely cut off from the outside world. As the night goes on, Joe, Ellen, and the remaining passengers realize that they are being stalked by something in the nearby woods.
Needless to say, Howl (Ma Soi) has the perfect setting for a horror film. As a fan of British horror and claustrophobic settings, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Though I won’t reveal too much, I will say that it is a “monster movie” in the traditional sense. With a name like Howl, I’m sure you can put two and two together regarding the nature of the beastNot to be confused with The Howling (1981), Howl sets itself apart with a unique setting. Though the plot is rather formulaic, this actually works to the film’s advantage. There’s a reason that certain storytelling formulas exist, especially in the horror genre. They leave viewers on the edge of their seats, feeling simultaneously entertained, anxious, and (hopefully) frightened.
For better or worse, Howl is one of those horror films that is less scary and more anxiety-inducing. I may be splitting hairs, but I’ve watched enough horror films to notice the difference. The first time I watched Psycho (1960), I refused to walk up dark stairwells for months. Even with the lights on, I would usually run. With Howl, I don’t have any fear of dark forests or late-night train rides. Therein lies the difference.
That said, Howl delivers an adrenaline-fueled pace that more than makes up for its lack of real scares. Sure, there are jump scares and violent deaths, which may be more than enough to give some viewers goosebumps. However, I found them a bit lacking.
As an independent British horror film (phim hanh dong kinh di), the cast makes up of relatively unknown actors. Nonetheless, the cast does an admirable job. There were no performances that drew me out of the story, which is more than I can say for most indie horror films.
From a production standpoint, the filmmakers do an excellent job of emphasizing their setting. It’s a dark and stormy night on the last train out of London, which is headed through a remote (and possibly haunted?) forest. Director Paul Hyett knew that he had pure gold with the setting alone. Fortunately, he didn’t let it go to waste. The train cars are claustrophobic, the forest is menacing, and the storm only adds to the chaos and violence that lurks outside. In short, Howl does a much better job of utilizing its claustrophobic setting than films like Christopher Smith’s Creep (2004).
Like other films of the genre, Howl (2015) loses some of its effect once you see the creature. When it comes to monster movies, the build-up is almost always better than the payoff. However, the filmmakers do a great job with their creature effects, despite the relatively small budget. Paul Hyett is well-known for his work in creature effects, which ensures that viewers wouldn’t be let down with bad CGI or low-quality makeup.
That was my primary fear when watching the film. While the creature reveal makes the threat a little less impactful, the creature itself will not disappoint. It looks scary and fits the tone of the film without looking overly cheesy. As an added bonus, there’s very little CGI, which I view as a huge plus. Thankfully, Paul Hyett put his skills to good use in that department.
In the end, Howl exceeds expectations by striking the right chord with its isolated, claustrophobic setting. Despite never getting a theatrical release, Howl did well on the film festival circuit and is now widely available to watch online. Though the script won’t win any awards for originality, it does its job by maintaining a fast pace and enough action to keep viewers interested.