What would a Howling movie be like if it combined elements from Tod Browning’s Freaks, Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and a dash of the 1970s Incredible Hulk television show for good measure? For those interested, this supposition was answered in the 1991 direct-to-video movie Howling IV: Freaks where in this sixth entry in the franchise we have a drifter who suffers from lycanthropy and is drawn into a whole new world of horror.
The film opens with a young woman carrying a teddy bear while being pursued through dark woods by some kind of creature, who or whatever the thing was it kills her and leaves nothing behind but her stuffed bear. We then cut to our film’s would-be protagonist, Ian Richards (Brendan Hughes), as he walks along a desert road holding a satchel and carrying that very same teddy bear. Is Ian responsible for the death of that young woman? Well, the film won’t bother to reference this ever again, other than to have Ian win his upcoming love interest a teddy bear at the local carnival, but it does add a little mystery to the proceedings and at this point in the franchise we should take anything that even resembles a mystery. Ian’s drifting lands him in the town of Canton Bluff, where he befriends the local church owner, a hapless minister named Dewey (Jered Barclay), and he gets a job helping the minister repair his church. While working for Dewey, Ian befriends the man’s daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson) and though the girl has clear romantic intentions towards Ian his lycanthropy forces him to push her away. Unfortunately, unrequited love is the least of Ian’s problems as a carnival run by R.B. Harker (Bruce Payne) arrives in town to take things in an even darker direction.
As the plot unfolds it turns out that Ian has been tracking Harker’s World of Wonders because not only does this carnival have an assortment of undesirable characters but Harker is, apparently, the leader of some sort of cult, one that is responsible for the slaughter of Ian’s family and, of course, the charismatic Harker is also the cause of Ian’s lycanthropy. Now, I must say this is an interesting direction for the Howling franchise to take and the idea of a werewolf on a personal quest to stop evil is an excellent premise to explore, sadly, the movie’s budget was incapable of pulling off such a story properly, one that involves a good werewolf battling against an even more hideous band of freaks, but when Harker is revealed to be a Nosferatu we do get an awesome showdown of werewolf versus vampire action.
• A buy the idea of a man who can change into a wolf a lot more than I do a carnival stopping in a dried-up small town where the carnies outnumber the residents.
• Harker promises a new recruit that “As long as you are with me no one will ever again call you freak” which is a strange promise to make considering that he’ll be part of the freak show.
• R.B. Harker’s freak show must be part Tardis as its interior looks to be bigger than the entire carnival.
• The boom mic makes more appearances in this movie than the werewolf does.
• Ian oversleeps on the night of a full moon, which is just irresponsible lycanthropy in my opinion.
• Mary Lou, the werewolf from Howling V: Rebirth who shows up as a visitor to the carnival, so I guess that’s some kind of continuity, right?
• What self-respecting werewolf changes during the full moon but then transforms back to human while it’s still dark?
• Our hero looks more like Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy than he does a werewolf, so maybe joining a carnival wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
I’ll give it that Howling IV: Freaks is one of the better entries in the franchise, which to be fair is not saying much, but where this film may fail in the storytelling it more than makes up for in giving us Bruce Payne’s simply delightful performance as the villainous Harker as he brilliantly balances charm and menace with such adeptness that he outshines all those around him, which considering this film actually has a pretty decent supporting cast is pretty impressive. The film not only supports the likes of Bruce Payne but also gets The Poseidon Adventure star Carol Lynley as the doomed bank manager, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Deep Roy as a three-armed freak and Antonio Fargas, who older viewers will remember as the street informant Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch, as a geek who bites the head off of a live chicken.
When you are talking about the sixth installment to a horror franchise one can’t expect too much in the way of quality and thus Howling IV: Freaks was a bit of a surprise to me, by all means, this is not a “good” movie, but it is quite entertaining and the only niggling thing that bothered me was the film’s particular brand of lycanthropy. In the original Howling, it was made quite clear that people afflicted with this type of lycanthropy could change from man to beast at will but in this movie, Ian’s change is not only triggered by the full moon but also by an incantation that the vampiric Harker happens to have on hand. Now, this latter element I could let slide, it being magic and all, but him changing by the light of the moon is just wrong and made worse by him changing back while it’s still nighttime. Make up your mind people, pick a lane for Christ’s sake! That all said, Howling IV: Freaks is an entertaining entry in what was a rather flagging franchise, with Bruce Payne’s performance being the real reason to check this one out, I just wish they’d put more werewolf action in these werewolf movies.
Howling VI: Freaks (1991) –
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
With virtually no budget and elements liberally lifted from Ray Bradbury Howling IV: Freaks is an interesting animal but Bruce Payne as a charismatic vampire more than makes up for the film’s shortcomings.