This isn’t like me, but I have not followed the THE HOWLING franchise. Before now I’d only seen 2 of the 8. I’d seen the original THE HOWLING a couple of times and HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS once, and I’d liked both. But I figured I could jump right to HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS, which falls into the Summer of ’91 since it was released DTV on June 13, 1991 according to IMDb. I guessed correctly that it’s not connected to previous entries (although production company Allied Vision had been behind the series since part IV).
It’s directed by Hope Perello, who I believe is the only woman to direct a HOWLING to date. She’d worked as a production coordinator (TROLL, FROM BEYOND and DOLLS) and producer (DEADLY WEAPON) and was producer and second unit director of PUPPET MASTER, but this was her first time as a director. Screenwriter Kevin Rock, who apparently loosely incorporated a few elements from the third installment in the Howling book series by Gary Brandner, was also a rookie.
The movie opens with a typical monster-P.O.V.-chasing-a-little-girl thing. Or, wait— no, it’s an adult woman, I just assumed it was a little girl because she was clutching a teddy bear. Anyway, she gets killed by an unseen howler, and then we go to a sunny desert road where a mysterious David-Duchovny-looking drifter named Ian Richards (Brendan Hughes, RETURN TO HORROR HIGH, BAD INFLUENCE, and apparently the werewolf in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON!) is carrying her teddy bear. Hmm.
He wanders into one of those tiny middle of nowhere towns we see in movies, where it seems like there are less than ten people and they all know each other but then suddenly they have a carnival and crowds show up. The sheriff, Fuller (Carlos Cervantes, COMMANDO, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, DISORDERLIES, MARKED FOR DEATH), spots Ian through the diner window, comes out and pulls a Teasle on him, saying, “This town don’t need no long term visitors. I make myself clear?”
But others from the diner come out too, and this guy Dewey (Jered Barclay, a cartoon voice actor who also played “Dead Trick in Car” in Ken Russell’s WHORE the same year) offers Ian a job and a place to stay. Dewey drives him there in his pickup truck and makes him ride in the back. Like a dog. Hmm.
Turns out Dewey lives at a run down old church with his daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson, Life Goes On, Mr. Belvedere). He enlists Ian to help restore the church, and the three of them do it during a happy montage set to a song called “Heaven Is In Your Eyes” by Vincent Fazzari (who also plays a carny in this and “Golf Cart Mechanic” in SHERLOCK: UNDERCOVER DOG). Ian and Elizabeth keep flirting, which kind of weirded me out because I thought he was supposed to be an adult and her a teen, but according to reference materials the actress was around 19 or 20, so it’s fine.
Immediately after the montage ends a circus rolls into town. Elizabeth and other residents seem delighted by the parade of a couple clowns and freak show wagons, while Ian seems suspicious of them. The sound of the people is cut out while the score (by Patrick Gleeson, THE PLAGUE DOGS, Ewoks) is circusy organ music, so it’s basically two musical montages back to back. What is this, ROCKY IV?
R.B. Harker, head of Harker’s World of Wonders, is played by Bruce Payne (who we last saw as the Devil in SWITCH), credited as Bruce Martyn Payne. His latest discovery is “Winston The Amazing Alligator Boy,” (Sean Sullivan, “Mohawk,” CLASS OF 1999), a guy with scales on his face who seems to be there against his will. Also around are Mr. Toones (Deep Roy, “Droopy McCool,” RETURN OF THE JEDI), whose gimmick is a withered third arm that he uses to cheat at cards; Carl/Carlotta (Christopher Morley, the Marilyn Monroe drag queen in DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD), a half man/half woman lounge singer; and Bellamey (Antonio Fargas, FIRESTARTER, FLORIDA STRAITS), a geek (the biting off the head of a chicken kind) who in his spare time keeps pet roaches in a matchbox and cries “My babies!” when they get loose.
Ian and Elizabeth go on a date to the carnival and walk through a haunted house with evil clowns, a fake decapitation, and also random side show acts. There’s a part that really made me laugh where the walls close in on them for a fake scare and Ian says, totally serious, “Damn it! We’re trapped. Now what?” The idea of the scene is to create sexual tension as they come very close to kissing, but it’s so funny that she’s able to overlook this guy really believing he’s trapped in a haunted house.
When they come to a separate sideshow tent called The Museum of Oddities, Ian says, “I don’t think your father would—“ and Elizabeth rebelliously says, “My father’s not here.” Now it not only seems like an adult and a kid, but a weird, judgmental adult and a kid. Why would her father object to a second freak show?
I think we get the subtext that Ian is a werewolf and concerned about becoming a sideshow freak himself (if he hasn’t been already). But he still seems like such a weirdo when they’re just looking at, like, pig fetuses in jars and he says, “This is wrong. Elizabeth, there’s nothing to be gained from this!”
Harker shows up and gives them a personal tour of what turn out to be quite extensive facilities, ending with Bellamey dressed as a harlequin in front of a checkerboard backdrop doing his thing with a chicken (a very graphic gore sequence). Harker smiles proudly at their disgust.
There’s an uncomfortable scene where Elizabeth comes into Ian’s bedroom at night and offers herself to him. He acts scared and turns her down and again, there could be a subtext of “it would probly be uncool for me, an adult man, to fuck my super-religious friend’s daughter in his house while he’s asleep nearby, even if it’s her idea,” but it seems to be more a case of “I would love to do it but I might turn into a werewolf and maul her.”
We finally get verification of his positive lycanthropic status when he wakes up from a nap, notices the giant full moon visible from the window, and says “Oh, Christ!” The transformation is decent, particularly the fingernails popping up as claws sprout out. But the actual look and roar (or the titular howling, I guess) as he examines himself in the mirror are pretty laughable.
Harker captures Ian in a cage and convinces him he blacked out and tore Elizabeth limb from limb (this is where George Lucas got the idea for Palpatine telling Vader he killed Padme; Lucas is known to be a huge HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS fan) and he’s sort of resigned to his fate of being a sideshow freak. But Elizabeth is fine, as he learns pretty quick when for some reason she and the whole town are in attendance as Harker makes a show out of his wolf transformation. “The very heart of Satan beats within him,” Harker claims, and tries to underline the point by throwing him Winston’s cat, Winston Salem II. But Ian (literally and figuratively) doesn’t bite.
The positions of the townspeople kind of switch because Sheriff Fuller figures out something is going on and becomes our hope for saving the day, while previously nice Dewey believes his former friend Ian is literally the Devil and goes all Witchfinder General on him. There’s some stuff I should just take as a commentary on the uselessness of cops. That would explain why the Sheriff finds Ian locked in a cage, yells at him and then leaves him there, doesn’t seem to consider that he should free him. And also why he watches the sideshow and learns of THE EXISTENCE OF WEREWOLVES and then just kinda goes, “Huh” and goes back to his office to continue the investigation.
I know many people think the Harker type of hammy villain is fun (Wheeler Winston Dixon called the performance “delicious” in his book A History of Horror) but personally I need more than the “arrogant British guy who acts evil all the time but nobody notices because of his accent or something” routine. Luckily he turns out to be a monster himself, and part of some cult that has something to do with Ian being a werewolf or something – I didn’t quite follow. I guess he’s a vampire, but he’s got this demonic look kind of like Peloquin from NIGHTBREED minus the head tentacles. There’s a pretty funny part where he bursts out from under a bench, munches on a guy’s intestines, then lifts the bench to ram the guy right through the ceiling of the trailer they’re in.
Another good one is when he’s back in human form, leading the town’s anti-monster lynch mob, and they corner Ian but the guy with the rifle won’t shoot because “I can’t! He’s a man!” So Harker says, “You whimpering bastard! I’ve had just… about… ENOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUGGGGHHH!!!”, rolls a pickup truck over with one hand and then turns into his monster form.
(This really should’ve been when we found out he was a monster, that would’ve been even better.)
This is one of the only movies I’ve seen where the angelic love interest kills Deep Roy. Harker’s death is a highlight – time lapse/animated disintegration of a dummy built over a skeleton. Very hand-made looking but cool, kinda like THE EVIL DEAD, though it also made me think of Udo Kier’s sunrise death in BLADE (a cg effect, I believe).
This is not what I consider a good movie, but it has enough of the strange business that keeps my interest. Somehow I’ve let the reputation of the sequels as trash scare me off even though I’ve seen all the HELLRAISERs and HIGHLANDERs. I should change that one of these days.
Brendan Hughes (Ian) later played “Security Guard at Station” in FIRST DOG starring Eric Roberts. Michele Matheson (Elizabeth) went on to parts in REVENGE OF THE NERDS III, THREESOME and KINGPIN. She’s the daughter of Don Matheson and Deanna Lund from the show Land of the Giants, played keyboards in a band called The Black Tales, and got good reviews for her 2006 novel Saving Angelfish, a story about an L.A. heroin junkie that Wikipedia claims is “loosely based on her life.”
Bruce Payne (Harker) of course went on to play a werewolf in FULL ECLIPSE as well as appearing in PASSENGER 57, ONE TOUGH BASTARD and HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME. Sean Sullivan (Winston the Amazing Alligator Boy) played Andy Warhol in 54.
Some of screenwriter Kevin Rock’s subsequent work includes WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON, PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT II and the famous unreleased Roger Corman FANTASTIC FOUR movie. Hope Perello directed two more movies: the Full Moon family sci-fi movie PET SHOP in ’94, and she wrote and directed ST. PATRICK’S DAY in ’97. That got me excited, but it turns out it’s not holiday horror, it’s a drama starring Piper Laurie. In 2000 she wrote the Fox TV movie UNAUTHORIZED: THE MARY KAY LETOURNEAU STORY.