Sunday, September 13, 2015

Monster Team-up Reflection #25: Howling VI--the Freaks

Without debate, "Howling VI: the Freaks" is the most offbeat in the werewolf film franchise. Considering the lackluster quality of most of the sequels, "Howling VI" should have been presented as a stand-alone submission. In fact, it caters to more than just a werewolf, even though one acts as its lead, catering on a number of unique specimens, and therefore emerges as a genuine monster-rally epic. 

Directed by Hope Perello and written by Kevin Rock, the 1991 installment contains aspects of "House of Frankenstein"; Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes"; Clive Barker's "Cabal/Nightbreed" (see "Monster Team-up #24": July '15); George A. Romero's "Tales from the Darkside: The Circus" (see "Monster Team-up #19": Sept '14); and Charles G. Finney's "The Circus of Dr. Lao". It also owes much to Tod Browning's "Freaks"; David Friedman's "She Freak" and as with those beloved entries, stands as a forerunner to the acclaimed "American Horror Story: Freak Show".

The story centers on an enigmatic Englishman/drifter named Ian (Brendan Hughes), a "closet" werewolf who wanders into a sleepy Southern town. He appears particularly drawn to a storefront flyer for a carnival called Harker's World of Wonders, which employees a line of human oddities. In truth, Ian has already accumulated news clippings on the traveling show: the implication being that he may wish to join it, or at the very least, seeks answers from it.

The carnival's owner and guru, R.B. Harker (Bruce "Martyn" Payne, in one of his most memorable roles) is a fascinating chap: stylish in countenance and at first, seemingly sympathetic toward those of different attributes. He tolerates (and perhaps even encourages) the rebellious behavior of his raucous gang, including its hermaphrodite, Carl/Carlotta (Christopher Marley) and a spiteful three-armed, little man named Toomes (Deep Roy). However, when they're crass to a new attraction, Winston, the Alligator Boy (Sean "Gregory" Sullivan), Harker puts them in their place and boosts the young man's ego, exalting his rough-skinned semblance.

On this basis, one would assume that Ian would have no problem finding his niche among the troupe, but for a time remains simply content in helping a humble preacher named Dewey (Jered Barclay) and his pretty daughter, Elizabeth (Michele Matheson), repair their church. 

While the trio bonds, the darker side of Harker's carnival rises: not just with Carl/Carlotta and Toomes, but with the chicken-decapitating, harlequin geek, Bellamy (Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas), who acts as a lookout and accomplice to Harker. They know what Ian is, and they want him for their maniacal menagerie, especially Harker, who we soon learn is as unique as those he collects--a sadistic, dark-skinned nosferatu. He also holds a startling link to Ian. 

To bolster the strangeness, the Canton Bluff citizens willingly participate in the carnival's inebriating panache. There's Miss Eddington, the attractive banker (Carol Lynley); eager-to-be-reelected Mayor Pruitt (Randy Pelish); and anxious Sheriff Fuller (Gary "Carlos" Cervantes), who initially comes across as a bumbling Fife-type, but later demonstrates his investigative prowess when Eddington goes missing and Ian is captured by Harker. 

It becomes a struggle for the preacher and daughter to accept Ian for what he's revealed to be, with smitten Elizabeth still wishing to embrace him and Dewey wrestling with the fact that his friend is a werewolf. However, through the dark heart of it all, the real evil of Canton Bluff makes itself known, but even so, when push comes to shove, can the good monster defeat the bad? The finale, of course, grants the answer.

Beyond its absorbing plot, "Howling VI" offers fine, low-budget visuals and atmosphere, with superb special make-up effects by Todd Masters and Steve Johnson. Also, to its credit, the oddities are never obscured by murky cinematography: a common flaw in most modern monster movies. (It should be noted that the werewolf design doesn't mesh with prior "Howling" installments, but this had already become a peculiar staple of the sequels, but in this instance is admirable for its Oliver Reed/"Curse of the Werewolf" insinuations, as well as projecting a look similar to Gary Oldman's furry counterpart in Coppola's "Drac" by at least a year.)

The only evident "flaw" in "Howling VI" is its prologue. The implication is that Ian has attacked a young woman; however, this seems to go against the character's grain, especially since he spares Winston's cat when in wolf form. On this basis, since the carnival does give teddy bears away as prizes (and the victim possesses one during the assault), perhaps it's Harker who's done the ghastly deed, but there's never any exploration on the matter, which upon repeated viewings creates a nagging loose end.

Despite this fact, and that some critics are inexplicably quick to condemn the movie without having even seen it, "Howling VI" is worth a watch and will certainly deliver the goods, as long as one doesn't anticipate too faithful a rehash of Gary Brandner's concepts (though for the record, certain elements of the author's novel, "Howling III", are present in the film). 

Alas, its misleading attribution forces the film to get lost in the direct-to-video shuffle, but taken as its own entity (which is absolutely how it should be perceived), "Howling VI" proves impressive. It contains a moody ambiance, satisfying pacing and sharp characterization: traits certainly not found in most throwaway horror films of its era. An underrated and unjustly maligned gem if ever there was one and worthy of any monster team-up fan's broadminded acceptance...

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