While the Howling series could be accused of many things, resting on its laurels certainly isn’t one of them. The long running werewolf saga that started with the magnificent Joe Dante original, has touched upon everything from European cults, Australian tribes and even a whodunit and while the overall quality has admittedly been lower than worm shit, at least the sequels seemed to be trying. Often very trying…
Well, the law of averages was due to strike eventually and while Howling VI: The Freaks is hardly what you’d call a rousing success, it ends up being a hairy head and shoulders above the other follow-ups thanks to trying something other than telling the usual shaggy dog story and even has a decent performance or two flying around the place during its low-rent production.
British wanderer Ian Richards finds himself at the dusty town of Canton Bluff and gets the sort of we-don’t-like-strangers-round-these-parts welcome that these places always seem to dole out. However, one place Ian doesn’t get the cold shoulder out in the burning heat is at the dilapidated local church where Dewey, the owner, welcomes him in with open arms, gets him to help fix the place up and basically gives the limey vagrant a free pass to date his daughter, Elizabeth.
Yep, it seems that Ian has landed on his feet in this expiring town and the only thing that could ruin it is if he was cursed to turn into werewolf every full moon – oh wait, that’s exactly what happens to him… bummer.
Anyway, after settling in and inevitably getting close to Elizabeth, the two visit a carnival that’s come to town which is run by the imposing R.B. Harker, an intense man who doesn’t let the fact that he constantly wears ruffled shirts dilute the hold he has over the varied freaks in his show. The latest applicant is the timid Winston, now dubbed the Alligator Boy thanks to his scaley skin, but Harker is always on the look out for new talent, which he finds when – you guessed it – he stumbles upon Ian’s lyncanthropy.
But things are a little more complicated than just obtaining a new recruit; you see Harker feels he knows the moody werewolf from somewhere and frames him for a savage attack in order to imprison him for his own ends. However, when trying to get him to perform in front of an audience by transforming and then eating a cat fails (solid act you’ve put together there, Harker), the promoter reveals he’s got quite the secret identity of his own and has been amassing quite the body count thanks to his dual life as a throat-ripping vampire.
The stage is set for a Werewolf/Vamp showdown that will decide the fate of the minuscule town of Canton Bluff and the 12-odd people who seem to live there…
So, let’s focus on the positive points first – because positives are usually few and far between when you’re dealing with a Howling sequel – but in this film there’s actually more than usual. The first thing is that Howling VI is comfortably different from everything that’s proceeded it thanks mainly to its fairground setting and the introduction of Bruce Payne’s scenery chewing bloodsucker which pre-dates the wolf/bat scraps from Underworld, Twilight and Van Helsing by a good few years. While it does admittedly raise a couple of questions – mainly like why the fuck would a vampire want to spend its immortal existence running a scummy carnival – it’s an entertaining enough location to hold an audiences attention span rather than the bland looking communes or towns we normally get. Harker actor Bruce Payne – never one to let the opportunity of a good, hammy performance pass him by – is pretty much the best thing here despite being as subtle as a heart attack, successfully wooing the townsfolk against Ian despite being so obviously sinister you half-expect him to come to work in an unmarked van with “Puppies For Sale” scrawled on the side. He’s got ample back up too, with Huggy Bear himself Antonio Fargas portraying a circus geek with a penchant for biting the heads off live chickens and legendary little person performer Deep Roy who does his thing while in love with pronoun-free singer Carl/Carlotta. While Brendan Hughes’ werewolf in exile is more vanilla than Vanilla Ice watching Vanilla Sky while eating vanilla ice cream, he still invokes way more empathy than any lead in a Howling sequel ever has despite his wolf form looking like Gene Simmons if he had his skin replaced with crete paper.
FX guru Steve Johnson returns with a noticably reduced budget and give us a lycanthope this time round that is less werewolf and more wolf man, but he still has some cool gnarly wolf legs and Harker’s vamp form of a jet black Nosferatu with the barrelled chest of an 19th century strong man is wildly original.
However, all this singing of Howling VI’s praises still doesn’t escape the fact that just because you claim that Howling VI is less shit than Howling IV, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Howling VI isn’t still a bit shit itself and for all of its riffing on Todd Browning’s 1932 curio, Freaks, it still ends up a sluggish, amateurish ride.
If the other townsfolk were any more thinly sketched they’d merely be a single line drawn in pencil and their middling subplots (apparently there’s a town election coming up and Dewey seems to have a bigger crush on Ian than his daughter does) draws precious screen time away from the fact that THERE’S A WEREWOLF AND A VAMPIRE IN THIS FILM – WHY ARE WE NOT FOCUSING ON THAT!? Mind you, when the two nocturnal bastards do finally square off it’s predictably somewhat of a non-event, with the two latex coated actors wrasslin’ until a handy stake and a burst of sunlight gives an admittedly sweet meltdown sequence.
Maybe I’ve done too many Howling movies in too short a time and my sense of priorities are a little out of whack but Howling VI ends up being a weird, underachieving triumph for a series that quality cocked its leg up and pissed on long, long ago…