The Howling was the first horror I ever saw, and it scared the living daylights out of me. Ever since that night when I sat horrified as Eddie changed into a werewolf, this genre has been a source of enjoyment for me. Having understandably fallen in love with the cult classic that is The Howling, I immediately ran down to the video store and rented the first three Howling sequels. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I was disgusted at at how badly-made, fake-looking, nonsensical and un-scary they were.
And then I came across Howling VI: The Freaks. Given its title, I had little hope that this would be even a half decent movie. But as I watched the film unfold in front of me late one night, I found myself increasingly drawn into what is undoubtedly the best sequel to The Howling.
The thing that sets The Freaks apart from all the other pathetic Howling sequels is its script. Yes, for once we have a smart, inventive script that is not a simple rehash of past misdemeanors. All the dialogue is fresh, and occasionally even mildly poetic (Harker in particular got some great speeches). The characters are well-rounded, and the story seems more focused on them rather than the werewolf - which is ultimately why The Freaks triumphs.
The remarkable thing about The Freaks is that the hero of the tale - and the character the audience is expected to identify with - is the werewolf himself. While it makes an interesting plot-twist, it almost seems like a message from the film-makers that we all have a dark-side, and how we use - or control - it will affect how we live and view the world. It's an interesting stand-point to take, but it adds a flare of originality to what could have been another tired werewolf plot.
The rest of the characters in The Freaks are all vibrant against-type heroes and villains who add a little spice and humour to the tale. Harker is undoubtedly the most interesting of them, and the revelation of his true nature - while a little hard to digest at first - is one that chills (although seeing such a formidable creature galloping around in such camp wardrobe lessens the intensity of the character!)
The thing that drags the film down, though (and quite surprisingly) is the direction. Many scenes are blandly shot in such boring and unoriginal ways that you can't help but feel a little restless to begin with. The 'freaks' themselves - when revealed for the first time in a 'House of Horrors'-style campment - are photographed in such a mundane, lack-lustre way (and accompanied by a lifeless score) that they all come across as rather boring, despite the excellent make-up effects. Only after a stunning transformation scene in the church bedroom does a little creativeness shine through in The Freaks, and although there are some memorable shots (though they were few) the directing is the weakest aspect of The Freaks.
As mentioned above, the make-up work is remarkable, and flawless. A dwarf with a third arm, a she-he being and the werewolf itself are all brilliant and hold up well even against movies of today. It's a shame that the werewolf wasn't the same as those from the first Howling (they were undoubtedly incredibly scary), but I can see how the film-makers would have wanred to go for a different look. The stand-out effect, however, is the demise of the vampire creature as the flesh slowly disintergrates to reveal bone in a scene that any movie would be hard-pressed to match these days - even with *cough* CGI.
Definitely the best sequel to the classic The Howling, The Freaks is a very different, very unusual movie (how could it not be, with a title like that?!). The direction at times is a little bland, but this is more than made up for in a strong script and cast. If you check out any Howling sequels, skip past the last four and go straight for this.