Monday, May 31, 2010

Howl (Book 3: John Dead, Texas Ranger)

Ahhh, a day off. Remember when we used to have those? I mean sure, technically us in America have Memorial Day today and don't have work, but somewhere around 10 years ago holidays just became "get all the shit done you couldn't get done otherwise" days. There is no such thing as a day off anymore. And that's good news for you guys because it means that you still get a review! Yahoooo! So I'm going to leave the rest to Roger as he busts out a script with so many genres it needs its own multiplex. Here's "Howl..."

Genre: Time-travelling werewolf Western (Okay, okay: Adventure, Horror, Science Fiction, Western)
Premise: A time-travelling Texas Ranger has spent the past 500 years hunting a particularly nasty werewolf. When he finally corners him in modern-day Texas, he'll need the help of an unlikely posse to save the world from chaos.
About: This script was picked up in 2001 by Warner Brothers sans producer with Lemkin attached to direct. Back in October, I reviewed another Lemkin script, titled $$$$$$, about a modern day city war in Los Angeles. Lemkin's writing credits include Red Planet, The Devil's Advocate, and Lethal Weapon 4. Upon being asked about "Howl" and his opportunity to direct, "It still makes me laugh and I assume still terrifies them which is why it hasn't happened."
Writer: Jonathan Lemkin
Details: Third Draft

If I wasn't a fan of Lemkin after reading $$$$$$, well, "Howl" won me over a lot sooner than the moment when Wanda, an ex-stripper and Waffle House waitress who has been recruited into a posse of werewolf hunters by a time-travelling Texas Ranger, dons a scant Red Riding Hood outfit and black fuck-me pumps and lures an army of werewolves into a seedy alley that has been converted into a kill box by the posse.
That's a little over eighty pages into the script, but by then, I had already fallen head-over-heels for "Howl", which I read on a plane cramped between two linebackers.
The title indicates that this is the third installment in what's a nod to serialized adventure storytelling, and the next page serves as a warning to a particular type of reader:
If you don't read comic books, stop.
Don't bother to read this. It'll just confuse you.
Watch the Bloomberg channel or something. Trade some stocks on-line. Worry about the Nasdaq.
For God's sake don't read this and complain that it's not something else. It's not.
As a guy that not only loves this kind of material, but writes it himself, I turned the pages with gusto.
Who the hell is John Dead?
Professor Jane Hamilton is the New Texas gal who discovers our time-travelling gunslinger. When we meet her, she's arrived with her archeology team at a construction site in the middle of West Texas in the middle of the night. The foreman greets her, hopes that they haven't stumbled across Indian ruins, because he can't pave over that. A likeable woman, she's brought the crew a ton of road beers while she investigates the site. These thoughts tell you everything you ought to know about Jane, "There's no adventures anymore. We just dig up what's left. Everything's linked by cell phone, internet, alphanumeric pager. Your GPS tells you exactly where you are at all times. You can't even get lost. That's why there's no men. Only boys and toys."
Well, what Jane doesn't know, is that she's about to meet a genuine, honest-to-goodness, real man.
Using state-of-the-art seismic imaging equipment, she discovers a western town from the 1880s. There's even a graveyard. It all looks pretty typical, but then she notices the oddly-shaped crypt calling attention to itself amidst the usual headstones and caskets. It appears to be a hypostyle, hieroglyphic-covered burial crypt that seems to be a replica of a three thousand year old Egyptian building about thirteen thousand miles from home.
She writes it off as the burial site of a crazed Egyptology enthusiast, so she puts an underling in charge. Of course they discovered mummified remains, and the underling even breaks a wax seal on one of the bodies, something he's going to regret in a few minutes.
What appears to be a cowboy and his dog are also discovered in the strange crypt, and they transport all the remains to the University of Texas at El Paso Medical Center, where of course, the body of the dog disappears and people die horrible, horrible deaths.
John Dead is the cowboy, and he awakens, pretty pissed off to discover that the dog has escaped. Dead wears new-fangled Levi jeans from 1874. White shirt. A pair of seven and a half inch Colt .44-40 revolvers on a gunbelt, Bowie knife in a scabbard, and a Winchester 1873 lever action rifle over his shoulder.
Dude is vintage.
He's on the hunt. He blends into El Paso, Texas, because, well, the guy's a motherfucking cowboy. He realizes a hundred years have passed by picking up a paper, finds a coin shop that buys precious metal, which he has a lot of and exchanges for new money. He takes this money, goes to a gunshop, invests in cartridges, primers, powder, scales, bullet molds, crimpers.
In other words, everything you need to make your own bullets.
At a flop house, he boils silver, and proceeds to make a shit-ton of ammo. At the Texas Ranger Offices, he asks to see the ranking officer. He's brought to Ben McCulloch's office, where he shows his one-hundred year old Ranger badge and a leather-bound ledger.
McCulloch says, "I take it if you're here, there's trouble." He knows about John Dead, but he can't quite believe the man is real.
He opens up a safe for Dead, revealing more ammo in wooden boxes. Dead requests some Rangers, but McCulloch explains, "We ain't had any call for our original mission for the most of the last hundred years."
So, this mean Dead is going to have to form a posse. He needs outlaws, mean sons-of-bitches.
Who gets to be part of Dead's posse?
McCulloch sends Dead to a roadside café where we meet Lumber, former road captain of the Pagans MC. Dead tells him, "I want a man who when it comes to nut cuttin' time, knows how to die standing up. I want a man to watch my back. Pay is a thousand dollars a day. Ten days up front."
"What exactly is it you're doing?"
"Hunting a werewolf."
Well, ten grand is ten grand. He accepts.
Then there's Wanda, the local slattern waitress who Dead and Lumber save from a bunch of rowdy customers, although they can't save her from getting fired. She asks to tag along with them, and Dead agrees, as she seems to be a radar for when people don't seem like...people. In the old days, he used to recruit prostitutes for this task.
She asks, "So where're we goin'?"
"Looking for a dog."
They go to a ranch house, where a man is breeding and training pitbulls to fight. Dead, against the breeder's warning, steps into the yard, and stares down the alpha. The alpha backs off, and all the other dogs hang back, except one, who approaches Dead, curious.
"Won't fight. Friedrich."
"Shows his belly?"
"Won't pit."
"Dog ain't afeared. Just ain't stupid. We'll take him."
And last but not least is Jane, whom Dead sees on television talking about the mummies. In a moment of misunderstood sarcasm, she reveals that the thieves should return the bodies to her as there's a pretty terrible curse associated with them.
Dead hears this, explains, "She's either a fool admitting she can read the curse and a threat to them...or she's one of 'em and she let him go on purpose."
So who is this werewolf and what's his plan?
His name is Marrok. He's a follower of Anubis, and his goal is to unleash seven years of devastation and death on Earth. See, Marrok is gathering a pack, because he needs to "kill an entire town in the light of a full moon, drench himself in the blood, as the last scream echoes, the pack is annealed, protected from silver for seven years.
This is information they discover thanks to a guy named Lobo, a priest who was part of Cortez' expedition. He was bit but not killed as an insult to the Church, but the Indians took him on as a shaman.
Lobo tells them, "All of the great calamities...The Black Death, Khans sweeping out of Mongolia, Fall of the Roman Empire...They were fermented by a Were or a lie to cover up something a Were had done during a frenzy."
Crazy. Does it work?
Fuck yeah, it does. But look, it's not a character study. Dead's flaw is that he's a virgin. He can never get close to a woman, because whenever he does, Marrok kills her. It's his way of torturing Dead.
And his inner conflict is over his feelings he has about Jane, a woman unlike any he's ever met before. In fact, he even asks Wanda about love and she reflects, "It's like wanting to be with someone so bad, you'd cut your arm off to be with them. And not miss it."
And it's a cool, satisfying theme. There may even be a scene, that quite literally, embodies what Wanda says about love.
And although the characters are quirky, that's as deep as it gets, but it works anyways because it's just well-executed fun. It delivers everything you want to see in a Texas Ranger Posse Vs. Werewolf Pack movie, and there's some inventive set-pieces that don't disappoint.
How different is it?
Well, have you ever read a script with a werewolf hunting dog that tries to protect its masters by taking on a super-alpha, only to be bit and turned into a human male? It's strange, it's funny, it's surprising.
The carnage in this thing is not for the squeamish. Yes, entire busses full of people get eaten. Towns are massacred. A motorcycle gang is converted into werewolves and there's all out war on the Texas roads.
This baby is bloody. As any self-respecting werewolf movie should be.
What separates "Howl" from the rest of the pack?
For the record, my favorite werewolf movie is the Neil Jordan adaptation of Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves. That's followed closely by John Landis' An American Werewolf in London and then the original The Wolf Man.
"Howl" fits somewhere within that triumvirate, a pulpy and campy action-adventure that is easily the best werewolf script I've ever read. It cures the staleness that has settled over the genre as indicated by everything from the Underworld franchise to The Wolfman remake. We're used to watching men transform into hulking beasts. That's nothing new. Perhaps we've experienced all of the horror and subtext that's possible within that, so what's the point in making another movie about werewolves?
Lemkin has created an interesting mythology that's all about the invasion and violation of community and security. John Dead explains, "...wolf was the greatest threat to family, community...Lotta places wolf was the largest, meanest thing you were likely to run into...but different countries, different Weres."
And I love that.
As someone who values the need for community, this spoke to me. These monsters are creatures that have made a pact with evil and they've discovered a way to become invincible that is based upon the ritualistic destruction of a community. To me, that's disturbing.
And these things come in droves. A horde. A terror shared with the threat in 28 Days Later, which will be remembered for its fast-motion tweak on the zombie mythos. "Howl" kind of does the same thing, but where the above flick was full of despair, this tale is occupied by a badass comicbook hero whose presence creates a bottleneck against this evil.
John Dead and the quirky recruits of his posse presents an original heroism and spirit that would separate "Howl" from all the other werewolf projects out there if its unique mythos, invention action sequences and fun narrative drive didn't already make it the leader of the werewolf pack.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The final third act battle, the confrontation with the Jungian Shadow archetype, is a master class in raising the stakes and throwing obstacles at the protagonist. Everything about Dead's plan is turned on its head by Marrok, exploiting all the mythology set-ups Lemkin peppered the script with. The werewolf mythology here is that if a werewolf bites a human, the human has to kill the werewolf before the venom takes root, otherwise they become one. Now, that's not all. There are other rules that Lemkin sets up, but every single one is used against the hero.
Marrok explains, "Right about now, you're thinking if I could only kill the Were that bit me...and you know what's funny, you can't. Cause I'm pretty much impervious to everything. Except maybe fire hot enough to boil silver...But...the trouble with burning me is, that won't work now either. Cause you can't commit suicide. Cause self-destruction isn't an option for a Were, which you are about to be. So now you can't die and be my guardian forcing me into the afterlife. Cause you ordered the fire and now it can't kill you. And you can't leave cause you've bound in the followers of Anubis of which you are now one..."
John Dead finds himself in a situation that seems to have no escape. Which makes how he's going to get out of such a situation a mystery for the reader. Mystery and subverting expectation can keep the reader turning the pages. What's even better is when the solution, the escape, the last Hail Mary, is unexpected, satisfying and in-tone with everything that came before it.