Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 22, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Howling VI: The Freaks (1991)

The “Howling” series would continue to haunt video stores into the nineties. Despite the serious lack of werewolf action in the last two entries in this werewolf series, video store patrons were clearly not deterred. With the sixth installment, “Howling VI: The Freaks,” a woman would step behind the camera. Hope Perello would direct this latest installment, which would prove more ambitious than the previous “Howling” sequels. This decision to put a little more time and money in paid off to some degree. While I’ve heard nothing but negative things about the other “Howling” sequels, people have occasionally said nice things about “The Freaks.”

Just like most of the “Howling” sequels, “The Freaks” has no connection to any of the previous entries in the series. (Though it supposedly draws some story elements from Gary Brandner’s third “Howling” novel.) Instead, the film follows Ian Richards, a drifter who wanders into the midwestern town of Canton Bluff. Ian soon befriends local pastor Dewey and begins a romance with his daughter, Elizabeth. But Ian is in town for a purpose. He’s pursuing a traveling carnival run by the mysterious R. B. Harker. Richards is a werewolf and Harker is a vampire, running a freak show full of other monsters. The two have a personal matter to settle but not before Ian escapes being displayed among the freaks and proves himself to Dewey and Elizabeth.

The last two “Howling” movies really gave the viewer werewolf blue balls, leaving the hairy beasts off-screen as long as possible. Seemingly to make up for this lack of creature carnage, “Howling VI” is a proper monster mash. Ian transforms into a werewolf on-screen, in a fairly effective sequence. His wolf form, though it resembles Lon Chaney Jr. more than Rob Bottin’s elaborate creatures in the original “Howling,” is pretty cool and on-screen frequently. Harker isn’t just a fangs-and-evening-wear vampire. He turns into a bat-faced beastie later in the film. As is the way, werewolf and vampire fight. And it’s actually pretty well done, the action scenes featuring some solid stunts. The way Harker is defeated, a likely homage to both “Horror of Dracula” and “The Evil Dead,” is an especially neat note to end things on.

“The Freaks” doesn’t stop there. Setting this fangs vs. fur narrative in a carnival sideshow allows for other oddities to appear. Deep Roy appears as a card shark with an extra, deformed arm sprouting from his chest. There’s a scaly-faced alligator boy, one of the more virtuous freaks. On the less deformed end, we also have a mime who also works as the chicken gutting geek and, among the film’s least PC choices, an evil hermaphrodite. It’s not just the carnival setting that adds color to this story. The film is seemingly set in the fifties, creating a folksy and rather likable atmosphere for its small town. Little scenes devoted to the local election and church are surprisingly cute.

The previous “Howling” sequels have not exactly set a high standard for acting in the latter half of this series. Among its other surprises, “The Freaks” actually has a decent cast. Brendan Hughes previously played a werewolf in “An American Werewolf in London” and has a few other horror credits of note. He’s fairly likable as Ian, a conflicted guy trying to do his best. Bruce Payne plays Harker. There’s a reason Payne frequently appears as villains in low budget flicks. It’s extremely fun to watch him ham it up as oversized villain, which he certainly gets to do here. Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear himself, plays the aforementioned geek. Michelle Matheson, of “Mr. Belvedere” fame, appears as Liz and is cute and charming. None of the performances are mind blowing but the characters are likable. You don’t mind following this bunch for ninety minutes.

It’s entirely possible the lackluster quality of every previous “Howling” sequel has lowered my standards. “The Freaks” may be a simply serviceable creature feature, entertaining but nothing special. Coming after the uneventful fourth and fifth “Howling” movies, it’s a real breath of fresh air. While it can’t quite match the campy insanity of “Your Sister is a Werewolf,” “Howling VI” is a fun monster mash with decent effects, effective pacing, and a likable cast of characters. This, almost by default, makes it among the best “Howling” sequels. Maybe I’ll rewatch it some day outside the context of the other films and see if I like it as much then. [7/10]

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