Judge Russell Engebretson gets his freak on with Keanu Reeves and Rastafarian eyeballs.
Can a hack actor-turned-genetic-nightmare now survive an evil conspiracy of corporate sleazebags, desperate milkmen, and Rastafarian eyeballs?
Freaked is a surreal 1993 comedy that casts Randy Quaid (Vacation) as an evil ringmaster who uses a banned industrial chemical to create mutants, Kenau Reeves (Constantine) as a dog-boy sideshow freak, and Mr. T (The A Team) as a—hmm, how to put it delicately—penis-challenged bearded lady. The movie is heavily influenced by the over-the-top comedic style of Naked Gun and Blazing Saddles, but the bizarre fusion of comedy and horror makes it a genre-busting, one-of-a-kind movie.
Facts of the Case
Vapid talk show host Skye Daley (Brooke Shields, The Blue Lagoon) interviews grownup ex–child TV star Ricky Coogan (Alex Winter, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) about his recent horrific experience in South America, where he was transformed from a lovable television icon into a hideous freak. The talk show framing device allows Ricky (hidden in the shadows) to narrate his story in flashback.
To reanimate his moribund career, Ricky accepts a five-million-dollar deal with the EES (Everything Except Shoes) Corporation to endorse Zygrot-24—a product banned in the U.S. and Europe. He and his obnoxious buddy Ernie (Michael Stoyanov, Mom and Dad Save the World), poster child for male chauvinism, arrive in the tiny South American country of Santa Flan (named for the patron saint of creamy desserts). Santa Flan is the only nation on earth where Zygrot-24 is still legal. On the plane they encounter Ricky Coogan's number one fan, Stuey Gluck (Alex Zuckerman, Hook), AKA the Troll, who is stowed away in the overhead luggage compartment. The young Stuey is distraught that his favorite celebrity is endorsing the deadly Zygrot-24, and he pleads with Ricky to retract his planned ad campaign for EES. Ricky's moral dilemma is solved when the emergency door pops open and Stuey is sucked out of the plane. Miraculously, Stuey survives the four-mile fall unscathed—even though he just misses landing on a haystack.
After disembarking from the jet, Ricky and Ernie are confronted by a group of angry protestors who are outraged over Ricky Coogan's endorsement of the toxic chemical. Ricky immediately falls for Julie (Megan Ward, Joe's Apartment), a strident feminist and environmentalist outfitted with a red beret and a "Save the Burrowing Sloth" T-shirt. Ricky disguises himself as an injured man, swathed head to toe in bandages, and agrees to accompany Julie to another site where she and her fellow protestors plan to pelt Ricky Coogan with cow dung. The trio is sidetracked on their journey when Julie spots garishly painted roadside billboards for a freak show and insists they check it out. They arrive at Freek Land and are greeted by freak show proprietor and mad scientist Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid).
As it turns out, Elijah not only displays freaks but also creates them—with a Tasty Freekz machine that runs on Zygrot-24. Elijah informs Ricky that he will be the freak show's masterpiece, the most hideous mutant freak Elijah has ever created.
Ricky, Ernie, and Julie, now transformed into freaks, meet up with the rest of the incarcerated freaks and trade stories of how they fell afoul of Skuggs. Later, they make plans for an escape attempt. What follow are encounters with gun-toting Rastafarian eyeballs, a knife fight between Ortiz the dog boy and Ricky (dressed in milkman uniforms), a freak-style game of Hollywood Squares (with Paul Lynde's skeleton in the center square), an apocalyptic sideshow battle between a pair of humongous freaks, and more bizarre episodes than one can shake a gnarly mutated stick at.
In the commentary Alex Winter says, "We originally wrote this movie to be made for $100,000. We wrote the first draft with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers. It was going to be a Butthole Surfers rock and roll extravaganza. Tom and I spent years trying to get that made…Everyone said no, so we rewrote it as a $12,000,000 movie. They immediately said yes, and it went into production within a month." The scriptwriters' first title choice for the movie was "Freekz"; however, Ted Turner owned the rights to Todd Browning's horror classic Freaks, and although titles are not protected by copyright, the studios generally uphold an unwritten agreement not to recycle another studio's title. Next choice was "Hideous Mutant Freaks," which was nixed by Fox. Stern and Winter (The Idiot Box on MTV) expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the final title, but that's what they were stuck with.
The models, make-up, and sets were created by a stellar special effects team, many of whom are singled out for praise in the audio commentary. Puppeteer Steve Johnson (Blade II), for example, created the burly puppet brawl between the Stuey and Ricky creatures. The gargantuan puppets—eight and nine feet tall, respectively—were remote-controlled by a small army of effects people. Johnson did a marvelous job of mimicking the work of two commercial artists from the fifties and sixties known for their bizarre, grotesque comic styles: Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Mad Magazine artist Basil Wolverton. The servo-controlled Stuey puppet is indebted to the Wolverten style, and the Ricky creature is closer in appearance to one of Roth's hot rod monsters (ensconced forever in pop history by the Big Daddy Roth line of Revell plastic model kits).
The giant shoe effect by the late Dave Allen (which would be a spoiler to discuss) was based on Ray Harryhausen's miniature tabletop animation. In the commentary, Tom Stern says today it would be a flawless CGI shot. In that case, I'm glad it wasn't done today, because there is something special about the stop-motion animated three-dimensional model. It has a physical presence—a sense of weight—that computer generated effects lack. (The movie does contain at least one early example of CGI, nicely executed, when the toad character laps up a bunny rabbit with his sticky tongue.) Since the movie was filmed in the pre-CGI era, the elaborate sideshow set was constructed full size, and all the actors are in real makeup and prosthetics—sometimes complete with servo motors and other gadgetry to animate facial expressions. The models, sets, and makeup are a testament to the effectiveness of old-school special effects.
The movie runs a lean 80 minutes. In fact, it might be somewhat too lean. A couple of puzzling continuity lapses indicate that more than one scene was left on the cutting room floor—as when the Stuey creature walks onto the Skye Daley show carrying two large, unexplained plastic bags. On the commentary, even Stern and Winter admit they can't remember what (or who) was in the bags. They said the original ending was very convoluted, with several hooks and twists, but a lot was cut for the final release. Winter expresses regret in the commentary that some of the dialogue and jokes were cut to hurry the movie along. But despite the movie's short running time, it is filled with a dense thicket of verbal and visual jokes that requires repeated viewings to catch all the gags. Of course, some jokes succeed and others fail, but the movie hits more than it misses. In an imperfect world, that's good enough for me.
Tom Stern says the movie was plagued with budget cuts shortly before it was finished when 20th Century-Fox underwent a regime change. The president who gave their script a thumbs-up was replaced by Peter Chernin. According to Stern, Chernin "took a giant shit on our movie." Consequently, the studio largely abandoned the film. Winter was very disappointed that much of their music was cut. He seems especially disconsolate that a demo by Iggy Pop, which was to be one of the theme songs, had to be trashcanned. But the major negative impact for the movie is that it was not promoted. Poor results from the preliminary screening and general hostility from the new big suits at Fox buried Freaked without a trace; even the VHS tape had a limited release with no fanfare.
Anchor Bay has resurrected this marginal, almost unknown cult movie and produced a lovingly crafted DVD release that rivals Criterion for completeness and transfer quality. Perhaps several pristine prints were available due to the picture's almost nonexistent theatrical release, because the 12-year-old picture is sparkling clean and boasts excellent shadow detail. The color palette conveys both natural and garishly bright colors (there is an abundance of both) with depth and clarity. No obvious compression artifacts are in evidence. The new Dolby 5.1 mix rocks when needed, yet renders the soft background noises and dialogue flawlessly.
The extras are a fans delight. The two-disc keep case sports a plastic wraparound cover that can be slipped off to reveal an artwork collage (sans type) of the whole cast in full makeup. The first disc contains—in addition to the movie—seven minutes of deleted scenes, a 21-minute video interview with writer Tim Burns, a handful of trailers (including one for Freaked), an audio commentary with Tom Stern and Alex Winter, an art gallery, and a pdf file of the seventh draft of the script. Interestingly, the seventh draft is not the final script, so there are several differences between the script and the movie. Instead of Skye Daley, for instance, it's Regis and Kathy Lee who interview Ricky Coogan. Winner for best extra on the first disc is the audio commentary. Stern and Winter provide insights and funny anecdotes on the making of the film. Their praise for the cast and special effects team is effusive and genuine (with some barbed but good-natured commentary about Mr. T as the bearded lady, who walked off the set just before the movie was finished—he was miffed about wearing dresses). Sometimes it's a chore to get through the commentary for a review, but his one was a joy—even after several listens. It's one of the better DVD audio commentaries I've heard in some time.
The second disc (entitled the Freaked Two-Headed Bonus Disc) consists of the usual behind-the-scenes features: videos of the cast, makeup application, and set construction. There are also two early films by Stern and Winter. One of the films is nothing more than a quick one-joke short; the other is 15 minutes long and exceedingly strange. It's amateurish, but fun to watch once. It's a rough, less effective version of the comic style that Tom Stern honed to a sharp point for Freaked. The standout feature on the second disc is a full-length, partial-dress rehearsal, which even contains some material that was deleted from the completed film. It's delightful to see the actors play their roles in a large, bare room (being watched by a few spectators in folding metal chairs). Randy Quaid is in his Custer-like wig and wearing his ringmaster suit, and Alex Winter is wearing a simple version of the freak prosthetic. Keanu Reeves is in his street clothes with no makeup. Most of the actors are reading their lines from their scripts and pretending to enter doors, move and walk around phantom objects, and so forth. It's a rehearsal that only movie industry insiders would normally get to see; a unique behind-the-scenes extra for a unique movie. Overall, we're treated to a fine set of extras with very little to complain about.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a note of warning, seeing Keanu Reeves play Ortiz the dog boy in a milkman's uniform (delivering his lines in a phony Latin American accent) may have a deleterious effect on your subsequent viewings of the Matrix trilogy.
Freaked delivers the goods: from phantasmagorical claymation intro credits by animator Dave Daniels (Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and top-flight makeup effects by artists such as Vance Hartwell (The Frighteners, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) to the bizarre comic-horror script that manages to offend about everyone (but with a just-kidding-folks, neo-Dada, anarchistic flair). It's a bizarre, independent sort of film—not the kind of project that is normally okayed by a big movie studio and given a multi-million-dollar budget. I suspect this movie will only appeal to a select group of weirdos. It works for me because it caters to some of my interests: irreverent comedy, horror movies, freaky cartoon art, and pre–computer graphics special effects. Thanks to this lovingly created DVD release, Freaked may find that special group of moviegoers who long to nurture—perhaps even release—their inner weirdo.
The court sez: a laurel…and hearty handshake to all. Thank you Anchor Bay; thank you cast, crew, and writers. As Mr. Sullivan was fond of reminding us, it was a "really, really big shew."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Directors/Writers Alex Winter and Tom Stern
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