NFSA Publicity Coordinator Jemma Pietrus interviews filmmaker Philippe Mora about Howling III: The Marsupials.
Jemma Pietrus: Howling III explores a unique take on werewolf mythology, and their link to Australian marsupials. How did this idea develop and how was the film perceived upon release both within Australia and internationally?
Philippe Mora: I’ve always been fascinated by the unique marsupial natural history of Australia, ever since I was a kid collecting the early kangaroo stamps. Simultaneously, my family and I have always been fighting the apologetic, cap-in-hand aspects of Australian culture that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s, and even now. Previously, my mother and father had an almighty fight to get the Museum of Modern Art of Australia up with their friends John and Sunday Reed. Later, I was in a position to ‘Australianise’ a Hollywood myth about werewolves because I found myself owning the copyright with my then partner Charles Waterstreet.
The Wolf Man (1941) was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jewish refugee who explicitly said the werewolf was a symbol of the Jew being persecuted and turned into a monster for reasons unknown. The full moon was the Swastika. So for all of the above reasons this idea of Howling III came to me in the form of a parody. Incredibly in Australia many didn’t realise the film was supposed to be funny. Fortunately a powerful critic, Vincent Canby of The New York Times, easily got the gags and his review made the film an immediate financial success, spawning another five werewolf films.
Do you believe the film was ahead of its time by adding a comedic tone to the horror genre?
Yes, it was. Another one of my films, The Return of Captain Invincible, was also more clearly ahead with its send-up of super heroes. Before Invincible superheroes never had a personal problem; now they all do.
Satire and parody are very difficult because you rely on the intelligence of the audience, which is uncontrollable. Sometimes it takes time to be understood, although how anyone could take Howling III as ‘straight’ is still beyond me.
Is there a stand-out memory for you during the making and production of Howling III?
The whole thing was made for about a million dollars which meant we were breaking the speed limit everyday. So my main memory is of how fast we were filming. I really enjoyed shooting the send-up within the send-up, the film It Came from Uranus.
I really liked the theme of the misunderstood werewolf prevalent throughout the film. Were you trying to make any analogies to specific social issues?
That really comes from Curt Siodmak, who said the werewolf is the symbol of the persecuted. Lon Chaney Jr’s character in The Wolf Man was in severe angst in that film, so I just extrapolated the concept.
What was the most memorable scene for you? For me, and I’m sure many audiences, the birthing scene was one that stays with you.
I think the birth scene is a highlight for sure. It was inspired by [legacy-smartlink:Birth of the Red Kangaroo], showing basically what I recreated in Howling III. It was difficult; I had to use a petrified mouse for the scene, put the mouse in the pouch, and film it backwards as it escaped. Imogen Annesley did a great job as Mum – the only actress in the history of cinema who can claim a marsupial birth scene.
What impact did Howling III have on your approach to filmmaking?
I learned that speed can be constructive and fun, that budget is unrelated to meaning or success, and that parody is bloody difficult. But give it a go!
What is your next project?
Such is the director’s fate that you have to work on many things at once since you never know what is going to fly. I have written a script on the life of General Sir John Monash. He was not a werewolf as far as I can ascertain, but he was Jewish and this caused all kinds of problems for him. He was much mightier than we have been told, and I want to tell the real story. It’s called Monash of Australia.
I’m about to release of my latest documentary Three Days in Auschwitz worldwide, starting with the UK. I am excited about that film, which has a great score by Eric Clapton. I am also editing a tragicomedy in that historical line-up, French Movie, a film about the French New Wave intertwined with the horrible and tragic terrorist actions in Paris last year. I filmed in Paris in September 2015.
Howling III: The Marsupials was digitally restored as part of NFSA Restores.