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I like to think most people have awoken in an unfamiliar place before and in a panic had to rewind the night's events in their mind. If not most people, then a good chunk. Sometimes, that shit goes down and you wake up at the park, some strange bathroom or wrapped in a sheet you do not recognize.  Sometimes you just have to find your pants and deal with it. You make your way home by whatever means possible, while trying not to draw too much attention, then you strain to remember the details of whatever event brought you to this state and try to forget it ever happened-- forever. If everyone hasn't experienced that at least once, they should--for like... perspective. It's probably a bad thing if it occurs regularly for extended periods of time, as you may have some kind of problem that needs attention. It's worse still if you wake up wearing nothing but blood. Maybe you made your way to a really theatrical rock concert at some point or acted out some kind of performance art-- but chances are, something really fucked up happened. Like something involving violence (and not the completely fun kind).  Even if it's not your own blood, unexplained bodily fluids are some spooky shit. It's a lot more difficult to make the sprint home nonchalantly when you look like the literal definition of gore-porn. I mean, once you realize the current line up of GWAR isn't touring, and the chunks of flesh in your teeth rule out any artistic endeavor, you have a few possible explanations left. The coolest of which would be that you had been inflicted with the legendary disease known as lycanthropy, aka you are a “werewolf”. I say coolest because a “sicko that bathes in entrails and then takes a nap in the woods” doesn't have as many perks and is a hard sell for sympathy. On the bright side, both lifestyles can make a pretty good movie or sometimes an enjoyable shitty movie. For an example of the werewolf variety, we can look at Howling VI: The Freaks (1991).
The film opens with an awkwardly lengthy sequence involving a girl running in slow motion from what we can only assume is a cameraman with respiratory issues. After the chase and implied “attack” ( POV creature-vision style), we cut to a man walking into a sleepy southern California, desert town El Mariachi style carrying a ripped up teddy bear instead of a guitar. The man, Ian (Brendan Hughes) is quickly greeted by local law enforcement and after being pocket checked is informed he is too broke to stick around. Just when he is about to be kicked out (back into the desert), another local, Dewey (Jered Barclay), comes to his rescue with an offer of room and board in exchange for “wood” work. Ian agrees, and he and his new pal Dewey head back to his pad, which turns out to be a beat-to-shit church. After he meets his host's daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson), the two set to work. A buddy montage follows of the two working diligently and developing a bond during an unspecified period of time. Among the heartwarming antics, Ian also finds time to start up a relationship with Elizabeth (because that's what happens in movies). Everything seems to be coming together fantastically, that is until Harkers World of Freaks comes to town. The traveling freak show headed by R.B. Harker (Bruce Payne)  acquires performers by holding people with deformities against their will and brainwashing them. We are introduced to Harker and his crew as they have just abducted, and quickly indoctrinated, a new “alligator boy”, before quickly shoving him on stage. It's pretty sleazy business practice, but it gets worse, when an untimely full moon outs Ian as a werewolf, and Harker realizes he doesn't have one of those yet.
As the title implies, Howling VI: The Freaks (1991) is the sixth installment of the loosely connected Howling series that started in 1981. If you have sampled a few of my other reviews, you may have noticed that I have a soft spot for bad sequels and will do my best to find a silver lining (poor word choice) in some of the more left field and unloved, supposed follow-ups. A few of the films that make up The Howling series would be an exponentially harder task to church-up, in that regard than others. The franchise could be best described as an anthology or collection of takes, as there is little to no connection from film to film, and the qualities range drastically. Like the original Howling, most of the films presumably take cues from Gary Brandner’s book series of the same title (1977).  The first film is a straight classic in my opinion, with a more viral outlook on the furry infliction and an awesome transformation sequence. The film was directed by Joe Dante and featured effects by Rob Bottin (originally Rick Baker was involved but left for American Werewolf in London--a topic for another article).  The second film, Howling II: ... Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), was a more comedic take on the source material and is virtually the only entry that follows its predecessor's storyline. However, while some of the characters carry over, it is more light-hearted and the tone changes dramatically. It does feature Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee and makes a fantastic, trashy watch. That was followed by an Australian production, The Marsupials: The Howling III (1987), which comes across as the Ninja III: The Domination (1984) of werewolf films, only not nearly as effective. It retains a somewhat decent budget but is jam-packed with random concepts and unnecessary lore. At that point, series continuity was thrown out the window, and the rest of the franchise just continued the trend of completely losing its shit, with an arsenal of bad monster effects and loose logic. Outside of a few nods and the ambitious, ugly clip show of a seventh film (Howling: New Moon Rising 1995), there is little to bridge any of the tales (the eighth even tries to reboot the series...I think). There is a lot more fun stuff to talk about, including the original author Brandner’s involvement with (and distaste for) the series and a dude name Clive Turner-- but that can wait for a movie they are involved in (more). Despite being one of the more frugal (and less affected by Clive Turner or Gary Brandner), the sixth film, for a few reasons, has always stood out of for me as one of the more memorable examples in the franchise.
The film has a distinct rustic flavor to it, as well as an eye for strange details. I do not know what plot points it takes from the book series (I have only read the first in the series and can not comment), but it seems to take cues from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, more than anything. As far as I can tell, it doesn't make any strides to connect to the other films in the series, outside of a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo ( which the following film elaborates on-- kind of...) and of course...the werewolf stuff. Because of its restraint when it comes to Ian's hairy side, it could easily fit inside the patchwork world that was haphazardly assembled in the other Howlings before it (aside from maybe the effects of a full moon thing that goes back and forth in canon). The isolation helps with it being a “one-off”, taking place in a small town and involving a traveling circus on the fringe. The contained plot would fit nicely in a horror anthology television show and, with little alteration, could have been a monster of the week for Kolchak or the X-Files crew. It crawls a little, but that comes with some surprising character development and motivation.  Most of the intentional humor left over in part Part V is lost to a more dramatic tone.  It takes a more classical note and plays it closer to something like Naschy's Wolfman meets The Last Unicorn (1982), with an attached moral about not judging skin conditions. It isn't some kind of masterwork by any means (it may be even a little stretch to say it is “good”), but it's engaging enough and miles ahead on the four sequels before it, story-wise. Even with better intentions, It's still pretty fucking silly. The attempts at a gothic vibe fall somewhere closer to Full Moon Productions circa 1990 than the more celebrated influences it has. Some of the logic is a little fuzzy, and it's admirable but shallow message comes off heavy-handed. It plays with the carny feel in a few ways that contrast preconceived notions, but the bulk is cliched circus tropes. Somehow, with all it's borrowed pieces, it manages to be its own thing. There is a slightly surreal atmosphere that blends with the subject matter and brings up its fairy tale roots. It employs a more dramatically driven story and sets it in a universe of frequent supernatural forces. It dodges some of its peer's pitfalls by being character focused and not divulging an unnecessary amount of details about the nature of lycanthropy. Like a few of the other Howling films, it skips over the parts where the main character must come to initial terms with the fucked up changes of being a man-wolf, which (after hundreds of were-movies) is to their credit. In this case, Ian wanders into town, looking for work, already well accustomed to his wolf-hood and even plans out his outburst with a calendar. Apparently, day work and going homeless was his initial life plan, post lycanthropy-- this is supposed to be just another stop on that journey. This film not only presupposes you know what a fucking werewolf is, but also avoids a few (genre typical) cliches and doesn't add unnecessary inconsistencies in the already destroyed series canon by doing so. There is arguably no large fictional world-shaking discoveries in were-studies, outside of some kind of magic dog whistle. It's a more earnest try at radically imposed upon characters within a dark but fantastic world. The drama still plays goofy as all hairy fuck, so in the grand scheme of things, that probably doesn't mean much, but I for one can appreciate that shit.
The film was one of only three directed by Hope Perello, who also had a production credit on things like Puppet Master (1989) and Robot Jocks (1989). She doesn't have much in the way of style, to speak of, but her contributions are more than competent in this case. It's mostly boilerplate placement and framing, with little experimentation. There are a few highly inspired moments in the direction reminiscent of early wolfman flicks, although these are sparse and most are eventually fumbled in some way. The more generic camera work isn't a great match for the slower pacing of the script, and some of the “fully transformed” action scenes could use a little flare. It all holds together well enough to take on a dusty folk-horror atmosphere that lingers throughout. The lighting displays some affectionate practical coloring when it is at it's best and encompassing darkness at its worst. The introduction of the traveling carnival arrives with an atmosphere of pinks blues and, yellows (etc). The movie obviously had a very limited budget that was used effectively (mostly). The werewolf looks like a bad tv effect from the 70s, and there is very little of him (transformed anyway) actually in the film-- it's kind of depressing. The big transformation starts off promising but ends up being the major let down of what is otherwise an upswing for the series. I honestly would have taken whatever the fuck that was in number four. The carnival “freaks”, on the other hand, are pretty well done or least within reason for this kind of film. Outside of a color choice on the final boss (which makes him look a little like the bad guy from the first power rangers movie), the non-werewolf special effects were a plus. Its extremely light on the sleaze on all accounts (I don't even remember a “swear word”) . There is little gore, outside of some blood and a lot of biting. Any truly gruesome stuff is covered in darkness. The horror aspects mostly exist inside dramatic moods--some work, and some, not so much. The final battle suffers greatly from stiff camera work, the shitty wolfman get-up and a tacked on feeling of the segment. All together the technical aspects and direction make for an enjoyable enough watch but not one for those who need their cheese served neat and at a rapid speed.
 Brendan Hughes plays Ian as a blood relative of Vlad, his character from 1988’s romantic vampire flick To Die For. He doesn't quite have the technical backup from that film, but fans of his moody vampire will most likely dig his grumpy werewolf. He also supposedly had an uncredited werewolf part in An American Werewolf in London (1981) so he has some previous fursuit experience. Bruce Payne plays the sinister ringleader Harker, and up until the final battle, he is a highlight of the film. Payne plays closer to the horror cinema roots and carries a few scenes almost solo. Most of the various circus performers were almost perfect and helped with the bizarre mood. The rest of the acting is a mixed bag, but everyone is well placed and looks relatively believable in their role. There are a few serious exceptions, but mostly they provide more unintentional comedy than damage.
I like a lot of what the Howling VI brings to the table. The freakshow motif pairs naturally with the tormented werewolf schick. It almost accidentally jumps over most of the cliched issues within the franchise. It takes the series in a different direction, and it is a better corny wolfman flick for it. Ultimately there are a lot worse movies out there on the subject matter but not a lot with effects as shitty when it comes to the actual werewolf. It's not going to change your life, but its has a little story going on in there, and it follows through in a few ways. Most importantly, it has inspired a good life plan in case I wake up having caught wolfman-itis myself. I can simply add it to the list of things that can begin a Bruce Banner-like trek to nowhere. Yep, just hit the fucking road meeting people and solving/starting problems while dealing with my hugely destructive flip side. Then, all I need is an iconically depressing hitchhiking theme played on a piano.
1h 42min | 1991
Director: Hope Perello
Writers: Gary Brandner (novels), Kevin Rock 


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