Drifter Ian Richards arrives in a small town and is taken in by the local preacher and his daughter. His appearance coincides with the arrival of a carnival and freak show. It turns out that the owner of the freak show is actually a vampire and he placed a curse on Richards’ family years ago. Whenever there is a full moon, Richards turns into a werewolf. Harker, the carnival ringmaster, now wants to enslave him into his freak show.
Between 1985 and 1989, four progressively cheaper Howling sequels were churned out, each with varying levels of quality, though most without any distinguishing features save for their ever-deepening levels awfulness. By doing so, the series had transformed itself into one of the worst horror franchises ever made. With a small break in production after Howling V: The Rebirth, a miracle happened to the series – the addition of Howling VI: The Freaks, arguably the best sequel of the entire bunch.
Having viewed the previous instalments, and feeling someone walking over my grave whilst I type this, I was expecting this fifth sequel to be the worst film ever. Seriously, the franchise couldn’t really get any lower. But what we get with Howling VI: The Freaks is a far cry from the other sequels. Sure its not without its problems but Howling VI: The Freaks isn’t just another rehash of the same tired plot about someone going somewhere remote and uncovering a group of werewolves living together. This one has new, fresh ideas and for the most part, they work. Like the later Hellraiser sequels, it may be the case that this started as a stand alone werewolf film and the producers decided to slap the Howling moniker onto it to make a bit more money.
Building a better film from the ground up involved constructing a decent story and that’s the first thing you’ll notice here. The film actually has some purpose and an end goal in sight to channel the direction of the film towards the final third. The characters are given priority here and are allowed to develop so that we come to sympathise or hate them. Keeping the focus of the film onto a handful of characters, the narrative is able to move forward in a logic and coherent manner – unlike some of the earlier sequels, there are no masses of sub-plots fighting over screen time.
Brendan Hughes gives a good account of himself as Ian Richards and Michelle Matheson, although a bit bland, at least makes her character likeable enough to warrant some levels of romantic interest between the two. Plus she’s cute and is very eager to shed her clothes for the drifter (a little too eagerly if you ask me, though the romantic sub-plot never actually goes anywhere). It’s Bruce Payne who steals the show as Harker, the freak show master. For a start he looks downright creepy and has a very eerie voice (British bad guys are the best!), delivering some excellent lines and making for a highly dangerous villain.
One of the main issues that people tend to have with the sequels is their lack of monster screen time. This is the case with Howling VI: The Freaks as the werewolf and vampire moments are few and far between, mainly confined to the final third as both Richards and Harker reveal their true nature. When you eventually see the special effects, you can see why the characters were given so much focus. The transformation scenes are very watered down and some of the make-up doesn’t look particularly convincing – but it’s an almighty improvement over the last few films. At least the monsters in this one look scary enough, not like the daft warped cartoon characters of Howling III or the angry dogs from Howling IV: The Original Nightmare.
It is actually the finale that really spoils the film when werewolf and vampire collide (sort of pre-dating Twilight by a good couple of decades). The story was quite interesting for the most but it really gets bogged down in the final third. It seemed as though they ran out of ideas and decided to let the special effects do the talking.
For a Howling sequel, this is excellent stuff by default alone, though werewolf lovers are better off getting their fix elsewhere. Howling VI: The Freaks is the best of the sequels but you get the sense after watching that the potential was there to go even further.