Christopher Lee, Spies, and Werewolf Sex
The strange tale of Howling II
By Richard Whittaker,
9:11AM, Fri. Jul. 10, 2015
If director Philippe Mora ever makes a movie about shooting his quirky, sleazy, lycanthropic exploitation movie Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, he already has a title: I Was a Soviet Werewolf.
It was 1984, the golden age of low-budget horrors with a comic twist. Mora was building a reputation for directing quirky action flicks, and had just wrapped A Breed Apart with Kathleen Turner and Rutger Hauer for British-based Hemdale Film. In later years, the company would go on to critical and Oscar success with Salvador, Platoon, River's Edge and The Last Emperor. However, buoyant on the unexpected success of The Terminator, they acquired the sequel rights to The Howling, Joe Dante's 1981 werewolf schlocker, and offered it to Mora.
He had a very good reason to accept: It was a paying gig. He said, "I just recall my late friend Arthur Ross, who wrote The Creature From the Black Lagoon, said he made that because he needed a station wagon. I needed a station wagon myself, so I agreed to do it."
Aside from the personal and pragmatic reason, there was something else about the project that piqued Mora's interest. He'd be making the first American horror movie in the Soviet Union. He said, "[Hemdale founder] John Daly, the producer, said he had a deal with [Barrandov Studio] in Prague, and that the film would be shot behind the Iron Curtain. That really fascinated me, because I thought making this film could be an adventure."
That turned out to be an understatement. Howling II was to be the third American picture shot in the Czechoslovakian capital, after Amadeus and Yentl. Mora, an Australian director working in the US, now found himself in the heart of pre-Glasnost Eastern Europe, with a handful of British and American cast and crew, four translators, and 140 Czech technicians, most of whom spoke little to no English.
However, at least he had a friend by his side: the legendary Christopher Lee, playing werewolf hunter Stefan Crosscoe. Mora called the horror icon "a mate. I'd done a film with him, The Return of Captain Invincible. He played Mister Midnight. He loved singing that song about drinking, 'Name Your Poison' that Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) wrote." When Mora told him he would be doing a shape-shifting flick, he recalled Lee telling him, "You know, dear boy, I've just done vampire films. I've never done a werewolf movie, and I need to add that to my resume.""
Yet, just because they were mates, that didn't mean Mora knew everything about the Hammer Horror king. When their plane touched down in Prague, there was a massive military parade at the airport: generals, dress uniforms, the full honors. Mora pointed it out to Lee, and wondered what dignitary that could be for. "He said, 'That's for me, dear boy. I'm a war hero here.'"
In case you didn't know, Lee was a World War II veteran with a lot of secrets. There's no reason you should now: As Mora noted, Lee didn't tend to talk about it much (Official Secrets Act and all). Aside from being the actor with the greatest number of screen credits ever, the only actor to play Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and Fu Manchu, and to appear in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings) and the oldest musician ever on the Billboard charts, for his metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, Lee had an extraordinary military career. A Royal Air Force intelligence officer, Lee was part of the Long Range Desert Patrol (the precursor to the SAS) before joining the secretive Special Operations Executive, nicknamed Churchill's secret army, or the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.
The topic of WW II fascinated Mora: not only had his father served during it, but a decade earlier, Mora had released Swastika, one of the first documentaries to use home movie footage shot by the Nazi leadership. Almost nothing is known of Lee's deployments, since his war record was sealed. Yet the Czechs were one of several nations to honor him for, not least for his part in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust and "the only top Nazi we'd ever nailed in the war," said Mora. After WW II, Lee was seconded to the Central Registry of War Crimes, and went to the concentration camps to collect evidence of Nazi atrocities.
For Mora, it was those experiences that helped make Lee the onscreen legend he became. "In all these horror movies, he had all the gravitas, because he'd seen terrible things and done them too, as anyone had in intelligence in World War II. But like all heroes, he never talked about it."
Lee wasn't the only cult actor on the set. Scream queen Sybil Danning has a memorable turn as 10,000-year-old witch queen Striba, possibly cinema's first blonde werewolf. While the political complexities of shooting in a dictatorship caused some problems, it was something far more practical that caused ructions in what Mora called "the infamous three-way, where they're having sex and turning into werewolves. It's incredibly difficult to have sex when the makeup department is running in and adding more hair."
The problem was that every time they touched each other, the werewolf fur would fall off. Finally, Mora told his cast, "We'll have to make it stylized. Try to have sex and not touch each other." Thus was born one of cinema's weirdest sex scenes, as the furry trio wildly paw the air near each other.
For a filmmaker, Prague was sometimes a dream, sometimes a nightmare. Mora quickly encountered practical problems that there was no way to foresee: For example, half the movie is set in Transylvania, while half takes place in LA. While Prague easily stood in for the Carpathian mountains, it was a lot tougher to re-create the City of Angels on the banks of the Vltava. Everything had to be re-created, and Mora even had to have his wife import American trash for set dressing. "The Playboys kept disappearing from the set."
Yet it afforded him some amazing locations, like the Melnik Ossuary or bone church. As for those 140 Czech crew members, its indigenous industry had produced first rate technicians. He said, "The Czech artisans were really old school, as in fantastic."
On the other hand, Mora had an assistant director appointed to the production. To this day he's unsure whether he was a spy or not. More said, "I don't know if he was working for the government but he didn't know much about being an AD. He didn't even know to tell people to shut up before I started shooting."
The shoot also briefly turned Mora into a Czech hero – although, not the kind that gets a military parade. There's a pivotal scene in a punk club, but when he asked for punk extras, he was told in flat terms there were no punks in Prague. Yet somehow word got out, and 1,000 punks kids turned up. It seems that Mora had inadvertently organized the country's first punk concert, and the audience couldn't be happier. Unfortunately, the large military contingent that turned up to quash this insurgent gathering seemed less impressed. It was up to Mora to calm the situation down, as he quickly realized this could be the end of his shoot. He quickly explained that he was filming a werewolf movie: "The general asked me, 'What's a werewolf?' and I told him, that's someone that turns into a wolf, and he just laughed."
However, it was still an early end to recording, as the extras were told to leave. However, to avoid further disturbance, they could only leave in groups of three. Yet when Mora got back to his hotel, the whole unruly mob was all waiting for him, cheering in the square below. This time, he said, "I was a hero."
Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf is released July 14 on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream! Factory.