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...
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
trailer (1:59) is 4:3 and
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.
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.
DVD-ROM feature has the screenplay
in PDF format.
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.
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.
(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.
(3:38) is footage of the construction of the main
Beast Boy! (6:56) is all about the application
of Alex Winter's make-up, and includes some goofing for
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.
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.