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There are NO weirdos here!
A region 1 DVD review of FREAKED by Slarek
 

As an actor, Alex Winter's career was disappointingly short. Despite having no dialogue, he was definitely the most interesting-looking of Kiefer Sutherland's Lost Boys, and as Bill S. Preston he had a wide-eyed, gorky appeal that actually eclipsed that of his co-star Keanu Reeves. But after their considerable success as Bill and Ted, Reeves' and Winter's careers took very different paths. Reeves landed a string of career-boosting roles that culminated in his iconic star turn in The Matrix, while Winter teamed up with Tim Burns and his NYU chum Tom Stern to create The Idiot Box for MTV. The trio then worked with on a script for the feature film under review here, which was originally titled Hideous Mutant Freeks [sic] and designed as a $100,000 comedy vehicle for the fabulously named rock group The Butthole Surfers (they're pretty damned good, as it happens). When that fell through they took the project to 20th Century Fox and aroused the interest of studio president Joe Roth, who greenlighted what can't by any stretch of the imagination have been an easy sell. I mean, cop this for a plot...

Young, self-centred brat actor Ricky Coogan accepts a five million dollar sponsorship deal from the giant EES (Everything Except Shoes) Corporation to promote the toxic fertiliser Zygrot 24. On arrival in the South American resort of Santa Flan, Coogan, his equally loutish friend Ernie and young and attractive environmental protestor Julie find themselves at a freak show run by the eccentric Elijah C. Skuggs, who imprisons them and, using the aforementioned Zygrot 24, mutates all three into freaks for his show. Held captive in a wooden outhouse with a Tardis-sized interior, they meet a collection of Skuggs' previous victims, led by Ortiz the Dog Boy, and begin planning their escape.

Fate really wasn't with Stern and Winter on this one. Midway through the shoot there was a personnel change at Fox and Roth's replacement was far less enthusiastic about the project than his predecessor. The money dried up, and on seeing the completed film the new Fox president told the filmmakers up front that he hated it and intended to bury it, and the bugger proved as good as his word. But it did get seen and word began to spread, and Stern and Winter eventually found themselves with a bona fide cult favourite on their hands.

There are a fair share of deliberately silly American comedies out there – infantile and even surrealist humour have made their mark in recent years, and the likes of Airplane! proved that if you relentlessly hurled gags at your audience, then they didn't all need to be funny for the film to score. But Freaked takes all of these elements, grinds them into a mind-boggling gloop and sprays it onto the screen with an energy and imagination that is sometimes jaw-dropping. The tone is set from the start, with an opening announcement that makes reference to an incident that only makes any sort of sense if you know The Idiot Box. Then Brook Shields gushes as talk-show host Skye Daley, interviewing an obviously deformed but silhouetted Ricky Coogan, and we launch straight into a bizarre corporate meeting in which the board of directors are controlled by puppetry, and a Mexican scientist exchanges angry words about his name and shrinks in size every time we see him.

The jokes, both visual and aural, come thick and fast and just never let up. The result is somewhat scattershot, but when it works its laugh-out-loud stuff and when it doesn't (rare) there's no need to worry as a better gag will be along in just a few seconds. Thus it's no real calamity if the sight of annoying troll Stuey being hit by an airline refreshment trolley is not all that funny, as a few moments later there is a hilarious sight gag involving the aircraft door, made even funnier by the sheer complexity and visual panache of its execution. The elaborate nature of some of the jokes was doubtless one of the things that gave the studio the heebie-jeebies, but in the days before CGI took over the movie business, it's this element that supplies the film with key aspect of its considerable appeal. Like a friend who will go to ridiculous lengths just to get one good laugh, some of the visual gags must have required an extraordinary level of planning and preparation for just a few seconds of screen time, their sheer scale sometimes the reason for their success (an early scene involving an exploding plane and a falling wheel is a good example).

Elsewhere the humour is Python-esque in its gleeful absurdity. Attempting to escape from from Skuggs dressed as a milkman, Coogan discovers that all of his fellow freaks have adopted this same disguise. He is unable to join them because, as Dog Boy explains, "Twelve milkmen is theoretically possible, but thirteen is silly." There is a fair level of base humour, but even this is given amusing dressing – the man who has been transformed into a freak that farts continual fire is known poetically as The Eternal Flame, and the suggestion of a turd that is the spitting image of Kim Basinger is met with the dismissive reply, "Boy, if I had a dime for every time I heard that." There are machine-gun toting Rastafarian eyeballs called Eye and N. Eye, a human worm who dreams of being able to wipe his own arse, a cowboy who is actually a cow, a man with a sock head who is publicly accused of fakery when it is revealed that his head is actually a hand, and a human toad whose darting tongue can pull down a small airplane. Deformed and hunched, Coogan reduces an audience to tears with a performance of Richard III that is subtitled for what the film calls "the culturally illiterate," a woman known as Pin-Head (a nod to Tod Browning's Freaks) has them rocking in the aisles with a string of tuneless wailings, The A-Team's Mr. T. plays a bearded lady who dishes out beauty tips for beards, and the conjoined Julie and Ernie do a tap-dance act and tell bad jokes. The list just goes on.

The cast are given plenty of leeway to mug it up and run with it, which is completely in tune with the project's wild pace and style. Alex Winter, who spends most of the film in half human, half Gremlin make-up, seems to run on nitrous oxide, a ball of energy and physical comedy that makes you mourn his decision to quit acting. William Sadler is wonderfully nasty as corporate monster Dick Brain (smilingly closing a deal with "Can I just add one thing – those who oppose us will stand knee-deep in the blood of their children") and Randy Quaid really throws himself into the role of Skuggs, his delivery of simple lines like "styrofoam cup" and "bad for the environment" a joy in itself. Even the smallest role is played with unbridled enthusiasm, and yes, that's an uncredited Keanu Reeves under all that Dog Boy makeup, a role that apparently had his agent tearing his hair out but in retrospect works oodles for his credibility.

The production design is inspired, the make-up first rate and the largely physical effects are splendidly executed – the sudden switch to claymation at one point seems just right for the tone of the scene and foreshadows its similar use in Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris by a good ten years. Even the epilepsy-inducing opening titles are a visual and aural blast. Whether Freaked is a great comedy is in the eye-n-eye of the beholder, but it's definitely a unique one – it's also wildly imaginative, energetic and often very, very funny. If you want a definition of what makes a cult movie then this is as good an example as you'll find on DVD this year, and I can't help wondering just what further inspired mayhem Stern and Winter would have unleashed on the world had the film found the original audience it deserved.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a terrific transfer, with colour, contrast, sharpness and black levels all as close to perfect as you could wish. The level of detail is very impressive, and shows off the film's visual qualities to their best advantage. Great job.

The soundtrack is offered in the original Dolby 2.0 stereo and a 5.1 remix. Both are very nice, with clarity excellent and separation pretty good even on the stereo track. Sound effects and music make non-aggressive use of the rear speakers on the 5.1 track. Lower frequencies aren't that busy, but this is still damned good on the ears.

A special mention should go to the packaging, which is really nicely done, and with an amusing booklet contained within which answers commonly asked questions about the film with a mixture of misdirection and outright lies.

extra features

Recognising the film's cult status, Anchor Bay have delivered a mother of a special edition here, with the extras spread over two discs, and here the two disc status is definitely justified.

On the first disc the main special feature is the commentary track with writer-directors Alex Winter and Tom Stern. This is a riot at times, with the energy and humour of the two men coming through in spades. Background information is provided on the genesis and making of the film, on the problems caused by the change of personnel at Fox and the disastrous first test screening, and on working with the actors, including the eventual falling out with Mr. T and the need to replace him with a double in some shots. All of this is laced with funny anecdotes, piss-taking of their own work and praise for that of the others involved, including brief CGI effects that Stern claims "some kid and his fucking Macintosh can crap out for breakfast" now. An MPAA rating that allowed only one use of the word 'fuck' in the film is discussed, and made up for with a more liberal use in the commentary itself, announced from the off when Stern introduces himself with the words "Shit piss fuck!" Great fun.

Hijinx in Freekland (11:49), a montage of behind-the-scenes footage featuring some rehearsal work and plenty of good natured tomfoolery, including some funny clowning between Mr. T and Lee Arenberg (who plays The Eternal Flame), and some staged prima donna bickering (at least I presume it was) between Megan Ward and her make-up girl.

A Conversation with Writer Tim Burns (21:17) is 16:9 anamorphic and shot on what looks like mini-DV with the autofocus not quite locked on to the subject. Broken up into sections, it consists of an address to camera on a variety of things related to the film, including bits he still likes, the studio's reaction to the finished film and their decision to bury it. As with his co-writers, Burns is cheerfully jovial in his delivery.

The trailer (1:59) is 4:3 and rather good.

Deleted scenes (7:16) consists of just two – Wheel of Fortune and Farewell to the Freeks, which run consecutively. Both are complete cuts with music and sound effects and are bookended with the tops and tails of the scenes they were originally surrounded by. Both are very good and the reasons for their removal is not clear, especially given the short length of the film as it stands.

The Freeked Art Gallery consists of three sections, production artwork and sketches, poster designs – which includes posters for the film under its earlier titles of Hideous Mutant Freeks and Freekz – and storyboards. This is 16:9 anamorphic and the pictures are approximately half screen size.

A DVD-ROM feature has the screenplay in PDF format.

Disc 2 kicks off with a special feature I have never encountered before. Freaked: The Rehearsal Version (83:52) is the entire film in rehearsal format and includes dialogue and scenes that didn't make it into the film itself. Fascinating in itself and occasionally very funny (the second reading for Prof. Nigel Crump is a deadpan joy), but shot on what looks like VHS or SVHS from largely one angle, it takes some stamina to sit through all 83 minutes in one go, and does emphasise just how important the visual aspect is to the success of the film. Randy Quaid is in full flow even at this stage.

There are NO weirdos here! (5:32) has extracts from further rehearsals of some scenes, including a couple that were cut from the film. Shot 4:3 on video, this is easier on the eye than the full rehearsal and is closer to the performers.

It's the Troll! (3:08) features footage of young Alex Zuckerman, who plays Stuey Gluck, in rehearsal. Energetic and very self-confident, his horrible screaming – required for the part and fully appropriate to it – made me glad I wasn't in the room with him and that I had a volume control on my amp.

Under Construkshen (3:38) is footage of the construction of the main set.

BEHOLD...The Beast Boy! (6:56) is all about the application of Alex Winter's make-up, and includes some goofing for the camera.

Two Short Films by Tom Stern & Alex Winter are brave inclusions, being work the two did at NYU. Squeal of Death (15:50) is 4:3 and colour and shot on 16mm and manic in a somewhat directionless manner, with Winter at full overacting throttle, but does show the pair's early concern with the visual aspect of their films. NYU Sight & Sound Project (0:54) is their first black and white experiment with 16mm, is under a minute long and very much a student project.

summary

A cult favourite finally makes it to DVD and gets the sort of treatment every such film deserves – a fabulous transfer, an entertaining commentary track and a busload of extra features. For fans of the film this is a dream come true, but the hope now is that it will find a larger audience. It's not for everyone, sure, but I'd put money on the probability that there are a fair few out there who are going to discover this film for the first time through this DVD and fall head over heels in love with it. Fox once tried to bury it, and Anchor Bay have dug it up, dusted it off and given it a shiny new set of clothes. Freaked is without doubt going to rank as one of the top DVD releases of 2005.

Freaked

USA 1993
80 mins
directors
Alex Winter
Tom Stern
starring
Alex Winter
Randy Quaid
William Sadler
Megan Ward
Mr. T
Brooke Shields

DVD details
region 1
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Stereo 2.0
Dolby Surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Writer/director's commentary
Behind-the-scenes featurette
A conversation with writer Tim Burns
Trailer
Deleted Scenes
distributor
Anchor Bay
review posted
25 July 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews