Quiet drifter Ian Richards (Brendan Hughes) arrives in a midwestern town called Canton Bluff where he finds shelter with troubled pastor Dewey (Jered Barclay) and his beautiful daughter Elizabeth (an engagingly winsome Michele Matheson) and helps restore the local church. Elizabeth is attracted to the brooding Englishman, but Ian initially rebuffs her fearing she will suffer his secret. For Ian is a werewolf and searching for the man who both cursed him and killed his family, a mysterious travelling showman named Harker (Bruce Payne) whose creepy carnival arrives in Canton Bluff beguiling locals with his array of outlandish freaks. Discovering Ian is a werewolf, Harker abducts then exposes him to the townsfolk as his star attraction, leading them to believe the lyncanthrope responsible for several local deaths. But the real culprit is Harker who is actually a vampire.
By far the strongest of the Howling sequels, film number six takes the time to explore its quirky characters and deepen relationships before getting down to the werewolf versus vampire stuff. In a stylish debut, director Hope Perello paints a vivid midwestern milieu with engagingly eccentric characters. Her eloquent visuals impart a dreamlike atmosphere, as in the scene where Ian and Elizabeth briefly fantasize they're sharing a passionate embrace before he spurns her, but largely in the evocative carnival scenes. The spook house and museum of oddities carry a creatively creepy frisson worthy of Ray Bradbury and bear comparison with the eerie delirium conjured in Hammer's Vampire Circus (1971).
Scripted by Kevin Rock, who penned the early Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four (1994), Howling VI: The Freaks touches on themes of community, exploitation and the need to look beyond surface appearances, underlined in the poignant friendship that blossoms between a caged Ian and kindly Winston the Alligator Boy (Sean Gregory Sullivan), who joins Harker's cavalcade to find refuge from persecution. Sadly, despite Harker's claims of offering the freaks sanctuary, in reality he is exploiting them. In a departure from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), the freaks are drawn as callous and cruel, as happy tormenting their fellow carnies as scaring normals. While this muddles the message, the bond between Ian and Winston reaches an affecting payoff as the werewolf refuses to eat the latter's beloved cat. This leads to the exciting climax wherein Winston recites an incantation allowing Ian to "wolf out" and battle the vampire Harker (named after you-know-who).
Although the transformation sequences are more accomplished than any of the other sequels, the end result is sadly less impressive: a shaggy Neanderthal with wolf-like legs. Which is a shame given Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988), a far lesser movie, featured a far better werewolf. However, Perello is sure-footed with the scare sequences and stages one memorable shock where the vampire (whose bronzed blue skin is oddly original) bursts from its coffin to take bite out of Mayor Pruitt (Randy Pelish). Based on her visual flair and ability to draw strong characterizations, Perello should have gone on to a notable career but after the offbeat children's film Pet Shop (1995) and the film festival favourite comedy-drama St. Patrick's Day (1997), she has been sadly silent.
There is a Nineties indie drama feel to her horror debut, what with its desert roads, laconic drifter hero and supporting cast of familiar faces in offbeat roles. Though the film regrettably wastes Carol Lynley in a throwaway victim role as an ageing southern belle who falls for Harker's fatal charm, there are memorable turns from former Starsky & Hutch regular Antonio Fargas as a carnival geek biting the heads off live chickens onstage, Deep Roy as a sleazy, triple-limbed card-sharp, female impersonator Christopher Morley as a nasty haemaphrodite, and Gary Carlos Cervantes as the town sheriff who - almost movingly - investigates the killings in spite of his own cynical attitude ("Whatever happened to sitting on your ass and collecting a paycheck?").