Howling V: The Rebirth & Howling VI: The Freaks
Horror franchises are a lot more elastic and less bound by continuity than series in other genres. The venerable Halloween franchise, for instance, has at least three different stories paralleling and intersecting throughout the series. The Texas Chainsaw sequels remake or ignore prior films at their convenience. Even the fairly straightforward Nightmare on Elm Street has its own out-of-continuity bastard stepchild in Freddy’s Revenge. Even by this standard, though, The Howling series pushes the idea of a “franchise” to the very breaking point. After part two and it’s very tenuous connection to the Joe Dante directed original, all sense of continuity or universe building was totally abandoned. Though part four’s soft reboot approach made it a more legitimate follow up to the 1981 original, by the time part five rolled around, we’re back to self-contained stories.
Instead of looking to Gary Brandner’s trilogy of Howling novels for inspiration the filmmakers try raiding other popular literature for their inspiration, plugging werewolves into these tried-and-true story templates hoping the novelty of the monster is enough to carry the film. In this double feature, we get werewolf variations on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in Howling V: The Rebirth and the Ray Bradbury-esque Howling VI: The Freaks. Are these low budget werewolf chillers freakishly entertaining, or will you wish there were none?
Howling V: The Rebirth
An ancient Hungarian castle is reopened after being shuttered for five hundred years. To mark the occasion a seemingly disparate group of people are invited for a weekend getaway at the castle. Among the attendees are a couple, Gail (Stephanie Faulkner) and David (Ben Cole) having an adulterous weekend, womanizing tennis pro Jonathan (Mark Sivertsen), washed up rock and roller, Ray (co-writer/producer Clive Turner), amusingly clueless and naïve bimbo Mary-Lou (Elizabeth Shé), as well as the intense and creepy Count Istvan (Philip Davis) and his staff of mute servants.
After arriving at the remote castle via bus, the group settles in and during dinner their host gives them a bit of history of the castle. Out of nowhere a freak blizzard strikes and, in what seems like a matter of minutes, turns the castle into a stand in for Echo Base conveniently stranding the guests. As the group disperses for the evening, individuals start meeting grisly ends in the passages and catacombs. As she lays dying, one of the victims manages to utter the word: “Werewolf…”
Eventually, after a lot of dull exposition, it’s revealed that the organizer of the event, Count Istvan, is actually a member of an ancient order called The Martyrs. He explains the history of the castle. The castle had been sealed for good reason. The patriarch of a noble family gathered his entire bloodline in the castle and slayed them all then fell on his own sword in an attempt to eradicate the lycanthropic curse plaguing their family. He was unsuccessful: a single baby survived. Now, the Martyrs are making it their mission to find the human being carrying the werewolf gene and help a non-lycanthropic person of the same bloodline kill it. All the guests bear the same birthmark linking them to the family slaughtered in the castle, but only one of them is actually the werewolf. As suspicions abound, that may happen sooner rather than later as the guests, the count and the servants try to kill one another.
I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but honestly I don’t care. I made three attempts to watch this film start to finish and each time my eyes glazed over after about thirty minutes. I did my best to cobble together a plot synopsis from my own half remember viewings and the ridiculously detailed plot synopsis on IMDB. I apologize if I’ve missed some of the finer plot points, but Christ, is this movie B-O-R-I-N-G.
Each Howling sequel serves not as a continuation of a single plot line, but as a standalone movie bearing only thematic resemblance to its predecessors. This approach would seem freeing in a sense, since you’re not painting into corners by events in previous films or obligated to retcon ideas that didn’t work when you can just drop the concept altogether and try something new. The problem with the Howling series is that they’re made on extremely low budgets and in extremely short time frames so, instead of being reined in by narrative, they’re reined in by money (or a lack thereof, more specifically). That’s never been more apparent than in Howling V: The Rebirth. What should be a terrifying werewolf thriller is essentially a locked-room mystery where the murderer is a werewolf. The sets look like they’re left over from a PBS serial: the setting is your typical cliché old castle, complete with cobwebs, secret passages and torture chambers. There’s not much imagination or flair on display: this is a journeyman’s work, all the way.
To his credit cinematographer Neal Sundstrom, making his directorial debut here (and stepping into the director’s chair last minute), does his best to keep the camera mobile in the many dialogue scenes which helps alleviate the tedium…to a point. But there are far too many failed suspense scenes and the main missive handed down from the producers seems to have been: “show the werewolf as little as possible.” There’s barely any werewolf action at all, and that’s a shame considering the creature itself is pretty cool looking in both design and the actual build of the suit. You literally get a better view of the monster on the DVD cover than you ever do in the film. On the rare occasions when the betas actually does make an appearance, everything is tightly framed and quickly edited meaning you never get to see anything.
Robbing us of even the basest of pleasures, the film really skimps on special effects. The gore is pedestrian and almost all the kills happen off screen. The aftermaths are unimaginative: apparently the werewolf only knows how to rip throats out. I suspect that it’s more a matter of economy with the filmmakers reusing the same torn throat appliance and drenching it the silly, too-brightly colored fake blood hoping nobody would notice (or care). They should’ve called the movie: “Howling V: Everybody Gets Their Throats Ripped Out By A Werewolf You Never See.”
In the grand tradition of terrible whodunits, the final reveal in Howling V is unforgivable. You can’t structure your film as whodunit and then pull off such an anticlimactic finale. Plus, if I’m reading the final shot correctly, the filmmakers have deliberately cheated the audience: there are times when people have been killed by the werewolf but the supposed werewolf is totally alibied (there’s a dropped line from a character off screen “Maybe there are two of them!” which smacks of post-production patching of the gaping plot holes). You can get away with an ending that doesn’t play fair if the rest of your film is good and scary (the original Friday the 13th, for example) but when the only card you’re holding is the a mystery driving the plot, to play it like Howling V does is an asshole move. Yes, this movie is an asshole.
Howling V seems to have a surprisingly solid reputation as one of the better installments but I can only assume that’s because the bar for this series was so low when it came out that even this dull, warmed over Miss-Marple-with-monsters mystery seemed an improvement over past installments. I’m not willing to cut it any slack, though; even taken on its own low-balling terms Howling V is a pretty awful movie.
Howling VI: The Freaks
A handsome, soft-spoken young drifter named Ian (Brandan Hughes) wanders into the town of Canton Bluffs looking for work. The kindly town preacher Dewey (Jered Barclay) offers him a job helping him restore the local church. Though the sheriff Fuller (Gary Carlos Cervantes) is skeptical and suspicious of at first, he begrudgingly comes to accept and respect Ian. See, Ian is quite the master carpenter and in what seems like only a few minutes of montage, work on the church is nearly finished. Despite his acceptance by the townsfolk and the advances of Dewey’s daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson), Ian chooses to keep himself isolated in his attic suite, sorting through newspaper clippings and tracking the lunar cycle.
When a travelling carnival comes to town the proprietor of the carnival and its attendant freak show, Harker (Bruce Payne), sets his sights on Ian. He recognizes Ian is a werewolf and has a crystal and incantation that can force Ian to change without the light from a full moon. When a woman turns up dead, Ian assumes it was him and submits to captivity under Harker. Though he is mistreated by Harker’s minions (including Christopher Morley and Deep Roy), he befriends the naïve Winston (Sean Gregory Sullivan), a young boy with an unfortunate condition that has him labeled the “Alligator Boy.” Soon, however, Ian discovers that the imposing carny is the true danger: Harker is actually a vampire and is the one responsible for the string of murders that Ian believe he had committed while in wolf form. To fight Harker and save his friends, Ian must give in to the primal nature he’s been running from for so long.
Even just a quick plot summary shows that Howling VI is a little bit more ambitious in scope than previous few sequels, especially the lazy part V. In 2013, vampire vs. werewolf is a totally played out story concept but, while it was hardly a blazingly original in 1991, as far as this series goes it’s a welcome change of pace. First time director Hope Perello really opens up the scale of the film compared to the last one. Instead of dull, dusty castle corridors, there’s some nice location shooting in a dustbowl town and the carnival scenes have atmosphere, with the funhouse and freak show exhibits particularly nicely set decorated.
Most importantly, Howling VI delivers more of the sort of monster action you’d expect from a film called The Howling. The werewolf make up is admittedly pretty lame but I can forgive that considering it’s a concession made for story purposes. Scenes requiring Ian to be able to express inner conflict and turmoil simply wouldn’t have worked using the werewolf designs from the last few movies. The transformation scene comes about ten minutes too late, but at least we actually get a transformation scene this time around. Actually, we get four (Like I said, Perello really goes all out in this one). The lackluster design of the wolf make up is totally mitigated by Harker’s vampire form, though. Simply put, Harker’s vampiric form is awesome and Bruce Payne’s few scenes in this make up are shocking and effective. The same kind of sleekness and power Rob Bottin brought to the werewolves in the series’ namesake returns in scenes where Harker terrorizes the townsfolk. We also get a nice death scene for the vampire as it disintegrates in sunlight, a scene which looks like it was inspired by equal parts Fright Night and Horror of Dracula. It’s a small pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.
These things alone would earned Howling VI a passing grade from me, but there’s also some weirdness in it that’s alternately interesting and disorienting. For one thing, I’m not sure when Howling VI is supposed to take place. On one hand, the cars are fairly modern, as is the sheriff’s uniform, and the parlance is contemporary, but the rest of the costuming gives off a definite depression-era vibe. There are no TVs present and the repairs on the church are done without power tools. I have no idea if this supposed to be a modern story or set sometime in the past, with the anachronistic elements occurring due to the low budget.
There’s also a strange subtext hanging over Howling VI that makes the long stretch before we get to do the monster mash (and it is a long stretch; thought not quite the slog part V was pacing is definitely Howling VI’s Achilles heel) that at least makes The Freaks interesting to watch. The story is set in a town that seems almost exclusively inhabited by men and director Perello constantly frames her shots with two men leaning in close or looking longingly at one another. I think it’s supposed to be a motif of male camaraderie but it reads really homoerotic. When Winston is brought before Harker, Harker is seated with his legs splayed and Winston is forced to kneel in front of him. The way this scene is framed…there’s no way I’m buying the allusion is unintentional. The montage of Ian and Dewey restoring the church is set to a song called “Heaven Is in Your Eyes,” and every time Elizabeth enters the scene, both men seem to view her as an unwelcome distraction. Elizabeth continually throws herself at Ian, wearing her sexiest red dress to the carnival (Ian seems more interested in the funhouse and freak show) and then showing up in his room in a cute sleep teddy (he sends her packing, unsatisfied). Even when our hero Ian finally makes love to the preacher’s daughter it seems more like he’s throwing her a pity fuck than fulfilling his own desires. The encounter is brief and perfunctory, with both parties unsatisfied by the experience and an uncomfortable Ian giving her a nice and platonic peck on the cheek before leaving as quickly as he can. The homoerotic subtext is cemented by the final shot: the film ends with Ian leaving Elizabeth behind, instead gently cradling an injured Winston the alligator boy as he carries him off into the sunset. Really, the whole movie seems like Ian and Harker fighting over who gets to fuck Winston in the end.
Both films are presented in 1:33 and look like they’ve been sourced from VHS masters. The colors in Howling V are a bit richer and brighter, but the movie has a blue tinge on the right and left edges of the screen during the darkly lit scenes that’s very distracting. In contrast, the contrast of The Howling VI is a bit more washed out looking, but more consistent overall. There are some nice primary colors in the carnival haunted house scenes, but they don’t look as dynamic as they should. Both films are rife with the sort of compression artifacts, interlacing problems, jagginess, artificial edge enhancement and noise that you’d expect from a budget release from a no-name company. Neither film is well served by this mediocre release, but they’re both still watchable.
Both films are also given barebones 2.0 Linear PCM tracks. Again, they’re both serviceable and of the mediocre quality you’d expect from a low budget release, though the audio track for Howling VI has a distinct edge. While it’s a quieter track overall, it’s nothing that the volume dial can’t fix. On the other hand, there were a few occasions during Howling V that the dialogue disappeared into an audio soup of indeterminate sounds. Not that I feel I really missed anything. They were probably talking about shoes or cans of soup.
There are no supplements, not even a brief teaser or trailer for either film.
Though made by the same group of people, Howling V and VI couldn`t be more different in approach. I think Howling VI has quite a bit more on offer than part V, but I seem to be in the minority opinion on that one. Howling VI is not a great movie but as far as this series goes it’s a little more ambitious and a little more interesting than the other sequels, especially part V. Though it lacks the moviemaking craft of the first and the balls out insanity of the second, it’s still worth watching.
An interesting side note: in what is possibly the sequels’ only bit of continuity, Elizabeth Shé of Howling V returns briefly in part VI playing a character again named Mary Lou. Is this a bit of world-building that’s a sign of things to come?
Only time will tell…
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Part VI was always a favorite of mine. Haven't seen it in a probably twelve years so it might not hold up well.
I remember loving Howling V as a kid. But I haven't seen it in years so maybe it is another lame sequel. I wish it would get a proper dvd/bluray though.
I have the Artisan DVD from 2003 that I still have not opened. Hopefully the picture quality is better than this one
I also loved Howling V as a kid. I watched it about a year ago on my Roku (Crackle, I think), where it had commercials added at the most annoying times possible. I don't think it held up well to my memory.
Anything featuring Bruce Payne is worth watching at least once. I think parts 2, 3, 5, and 6 are more enjoyable than part 1.
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