There are horror franchises that are beloved and then there are beloved horror movies that have spawned franchises. Friday the 13th, for example, is a beloved franchise—perhaps more than it is a beloved feature on its own. The Exorcist, on the other hand, is a beloved feature that happened to spawn a franchise. In the hardcore horror crowd, you’ll find a lot of love for Exorcist III, but that’s about it. Children of the Corn falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a semi-beloved picture, but not really a beloved franchise.
When you look at the ranks of terrible franchises, The Howling is right up there. I’ll admit, I rented these movies all the time as a kid, but that doesn’t make them good. The first one is a classic. It’s iconic. Right up there with An American Werewolf in London for the title of best werewolf film of all time. Things went downhill kind of immediately with Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf—or Stirba, Werewolf Bitch, its original title, neither of them are good so take your pick—which is much cheaper, sillier and really has nothing to do with the first. It has Christopher Lee, who’s never not good, and Sybil Danning who is actually really in her element, but the effects and story are such a downward spiral from the first.
Howling III: The Marsupials at least embraces its cheapness and total absurdity, but it’s hard to watch for many reasons, not the least of which is that it feels like it’s going to give you a seizure at times. And Howling IV: The Original Nightmare is probably the worst of the bunch for the fact that in addition to being another bottom-budget Howling sequel, it’s also a remake of the original film—making the valiant attempt to stick closer to the novel this time.
Now, we find ourselves celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Howling VI: The Freaks, which is something probably no one else on the Internet will tell you to celebrate. But Howling VI is the best of the Howling sequels, which is a surprise. It’s rare to see that kind of upswing happen so late in the series. And I was going to focus this piece entirely on The Freaks until I remembered something that surprised me: Howling V is kind of good, too.
So we’ll give some support to both, because together they form the least worst of what the Howling sequels have to offer. They go hand-in-hand anyway, especially with the fact that you can barely ever buy one without the other now, as they’re always together in some two-pack or discount collection. I still rank Howling VI over V not just because it’s the one with the big anniversary, but for reasons regarding story and character that we’ll get into as we go along.
The big problem with Howling V: The Rebirth is that it has the best werewolf design out of any of the sequels, but refuses to show it off. I understand the less-is-more approach, but you never get a good shot of the creature throughout the entire film. Where it shines, though, is in the fact that it is a classic, old-fashioned murder mystery that feels like a cross between Agatha Christie and a Hammer horror production. The basic plot revolves around a group of people who all have some vague connection to one another but have never really met before, and who are invited to spend the night in an ancient castle with a grim past.
Of course, people start disappearing because one of them is a werewolf. Believe it or not, the mystery aspect of the fifth entry is very well done. You’re constantly guessing who the werewolf is and the ending actually manages to be surprising and clever without feeling out of place. This is one of the last films I expected to go back and watch and be able to pick up clues as to who the werewolf is, but you really can. It’s surprisingly well structured in that regard. It’s also the only sequel with any kind of good soundtrack and the main theme is great.
Moving on to the main event, Howling VI: The Freaks is a film I rented all the time as a kid and while it doesn’t hold up in quite the way I remember it, it’s much better than I expected it to be upon revisiting it. There’s a story here and it’s a surprisingly good one. It actually amazes me, looking at the series as a whole, that it took six entries to get to the classic “werewolf loner who curses his condition” story. It’s the archetypal werewolf tale. But this gets bonus points for not telling us the same story all over again and taking those strong character elements and that whole idea of the lonely, wandering lycanthrope and setting it all against the backdrop of a carnival.
From Ghoulies II, to Child’s Play 3, Dr. Giggles and beyond, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s really had a strange fetish for carnivals and fairs but it works for Howling VI. It’s sort of the Something Wicked This Way Comes of Howling flicks. An enigmatic ringmaster named Mr. Harker comes to a dreary small town inhabited by six or seven speaking characters and a handful of extras. He livens up this nearly dead community with his carnival attractions, particularly the freak show. Of course, his arrival happens to coincide with a drifter named Ian, who is seen as a shady character at first, but is taken in by the local preacher and his daughter—who naturally becomes Ian’s love interest.
Howling VI actually manages to say some interesting things about the hive mentality of small towns as Ian is universally shunned by the people of Canton Bluff, then wins over their trust and becomes everyone’s favorite member of the community, and then when he becomes a part of the freak show, they turn on him again. But it’s actually almost heartwarming for a movie this hokey to see the people rally together on his behalf toward the end when they realize that they’ve seen enough of Ian to know that he is not evil, in spite of whatever else he might be.
Of course, the main draw of Howling VI is something I went nuts for as a kid and something they were smart enough to put right on the box: Vampire vs. Werewolf. It beat Underworld to the punch by over a decade. It plays out in an interesting way, too, because we see most kills from the monster’s perspective as with just about every Howling sequel. So we start out thinking that we know what to expect. But then it turns out that it’s not the werewolf doing the killing.
The vampire makeup is great, harkening back to Nosferatu while accentuating the bat-like features and looking almost amphibian in design at the same time. Basically, it’s exactly the way a vampire in a schlocky monster movie like this should look. The werewolf, on the other hand, has the exact opposite problem that Howling V had. We see plenty of him, but he looks awful. There’s no real way around the fact that the one thing working against Howling VI is the werewolf himself, although he does kind of grow on you over time.
Regardless, Howling VI is way more fun than it should be. It’s a movie that tends to go way overlooked although reviews at the time did seem to agree it was the best of the sequels. But most people now don’t even remember it. And while none of the Howling sequels really make strides to live up to the title of the original, I don’t think Rebirth or The Freaks deserve to be forgotten, either.