Saturday, August 15, 2015

Howling VI: The Freaks (1991)

British drifter Ian (Brendan Hughes) comes to a dying town in the US South-West (with a big emphasis on South). Despite the handful of people populating the place that hasn’t been driven away yet by droughts and desperation being rather eccentric, Ian stays on for a while. For room and board, Ian helps the local preacher Dewey (Jered Barclay) and his traditionally pretty young daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson) renovate their church, a place that needs every bit of help it can get. After a while, even the rude local sheriff (Gary Carlos Cervantes) comes around to Ian, and of course love is blossoming between Ian and Elizabeth.

Things are bound to get somewhat more complicated when the travelling carnival of one R.B. Harker (Bruce Payne) arrives. With carnies played by Antonio Fargas and Deep Roy in sinister weirdo mode, it comes as no surprise that there’s something just not right about that carnival. If one were bound to do some research, one might even learn there’s a trail of disappearances and deaths following it or a carnival quite like it. And wouldn’t you know it, Ian’s stay in town hasn’t exactly been accidental: he has been waiting for the carnival to arrive, for the young man is a werewolf, and he has plans against Harker. However, Harker, it turns out, might just have plans of his own.

For two movies, the Howling series got downright interesting again, films number five and six being very much their own thing without any relevant connections to films numbers one and two (we don’t talk about number three around here), or the attempted reboot with four. Clearly, as long as there are werewolves in the movies, it’s good enough to be called a Howling movie, so we follow a badly acted yet fun goth-ing of the manor house mystery with a Southern Gothic that also nods to Ray Bradbury (especially Something Wicked this Way Comes, of course), the Incredible Hulk, and every strange things you ever heard about the US South as a place of the grotesque.

Even though it is a bit of a scrappy movie (clearly on account of its budget), director Hope Perello shows a surprising amount of control over a film that just shouldn’t work at all, given the peculiar rhythm of its plot, the not exactly easily believable nature of its characters, and a core moral about the lack of connection between inner and outer monstrosity. Yet Perello does some fine work creating the appropriate heated and strange mood that might not convince anyone of the reality of her film’s world but convinces one quite wonderfully of the irreality of it. Which is my preferred movie mode anyhow.

While the plot has its awkward moments (like the scene where Ian oversleeps rather stupidly on a full moon night, something a surprising amount of werewolf media thinks to be plausible), these moments emphasise the film’s mood and the idea you’ve stepped into a place that is both less and more than real just all the more. There is a lot going on under the film’s surface too, an argument about the nature of evil that isn’t quite as simple as it at first seems to be, with the film putting its money on evil being a choice, as well as a force inside oneself one has to fight (or if you’re like Harker, cultivate) again and again, no matter if you’re a priest, a wolfman style werewolf, or a guy with a bad skin condition looking for a place where people treat him right. Some of the conclusions the film comes to are actually a pleasant surprise, with it coming down heavily on the side of hope and redemption instead of eternal damnation.

And as if being a dream-like morality play done well weren’t enough to endear The Freaks to me, Perello also didn’t skip on the all-important monster content, presenting some cheap yet fun murders absolutely in tone with the rest of her film, and even ending the proceedings on an old-fashioned monster mash you probably didn’t see coming. The monster make-up is in keeping with the film’s mood too, and makes an interesting attempt at using a very classic monster model but making it individual. It also looks just a bit silly, but then, there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

It’s a shame the Howling films didn’t continue in this vein, but then, we’ll always have The Rebirth and The Freaks.

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