It was bound to happen; we’ve made it to the 90s! So, obviously, it’s time for a story set in what feels like a 70s backwater town, somewhere in the midsts of rural Americana. This particular story of werewolf shenanigans has everything you would expect from the kind of cod-gothic the era became renowned for; overacting, excessive self-importance, and men in incredibly frilly shirts. But there is still fun to be had, as we enter the world of The Freaks.
It’s worth pointing out that this is the most emotionally interesting film the Howling series has given us so far; even if it is a bit overblown and, with our hindsight, feels a bit derivative. The character Ian Richards (Brendan Hughes) goes through an actual journey, starting with making his way into the outsider-weary community, and you can feel true pathos for the choices he makes along the way. Similarly, although more signposted, local not-quite-a-Vicar-but-he-owns-the-church Dewey (Jared Barclay) and his you-can-see-where-this-is-going-a-mile-off daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson) have a plethora of responses to finding out their lodger is a werewolf.
Offering less emotional range, but with a lot more really cool lines, is Harker (Bruce Payne): the owner of a traveling freakshow and very-obviously-the-bad-guy. He gets to brood, talk high falutin cobblers, and have half his schtick ripped off by Interview With A Vampire three years later. He also gets to kidnap and imprison Ian, setting off a series of events that have actual resonance with the audience because these are real badly-written characters going through real badly-written turmoil. I labour the point about the script not to discredit anyone, but to point out that even with that in their way you end up feeling something beyond the “oooh, I wonder whole have their face eaten next?” most of the previous movies.
As for the titular Freaks; are you in for a treat! There is Winston (Sean Gregory), The Alligator Boy, who gets some of the saddest scenes in the movie. There is Toones, an utter arse of a bastard played with great joy by Deep Roy, and Carl/Carlotta (Christopher Morley), a quasi-trans character that will make you wince at the “queer equals evil and freak” coding. And finally, leading the pack in so many ways, there is Antonio Fargas as Bellamey; an actual circus geek. Yes, this film has Huggy Bear biting the head off a live chicken!
Everything is grubby, in that “let’s make things look bad and backward by spraying dirt on it all” manner that unimaginative directors use. Everything is also overblown and overplayed. like people who think their script is way better than it actually is often do. But for all its drama-of-the-week schlock it manages to, somehow, work. Maybe not by much, but by enough to keep you interested and wondering what will happen next. It’s helped by there being enough unforeseen twists, to shake up the cliches.
About the only place the film really fails is on the werewolf effects, and even then, that failure kind of works. Whilst things start subtly, including a joint-aching scene where we see fingernails fly off during a transformation. But we end up with long, well-light, protracted shots of Ian in full wolfman, which start impressive and then gradually demystify the situation. The thing is, he’s being held captive and he’s being paraded as an exhibit. That’s how the audience would feel about him. It’s maybe not the best werewolf design going, but it does the job and even today there are worse choices being made.
As a big of supernatural melodrama, it works really well, and it was engaging enough to keep me focused and impressed when the plot didn’t go in the obvious direction. It’s probably not spooky or violent enough for a lot of horror fans, whilst werewolf fans might find some moments pretty darn interesting as it plays with the whole “beast or man” question. As for The Howling series, it’s yet again done something different and that, by its own measure, makes it worth your time. It’s not perfect, but it handles its shortcomings with dignity and wears its successes with due pride.