From the moment I first spotted photos of Alex Winter as Beast Boy in the pages of Fangoria a decade and change ago, I knew I had to see Freaked.
Twentieth Century Fox clearly wasn't as keen on the movie as I was, giving it an extremely limited theatrical run (y'know the cliché -- Freaked wasn't released; it escaped) and then dumping the movie on home video. Aside from message board posts saying "wow, it'd be neat if someone put out Freaked on DVD", I hadn't really seen much of anything about the movie between the last time I cracked open that issue of Fango and this afternoon, when I tore the shrinkwrap off this shiny two-disc set from Anchor Bay and dove right in. This is the type of elaborate special edition that can make a twelve year wait really not seem all that bad, teeming with oodles of extras and boasting a spiffy widescreen transfer.
Freaked revolves around stuck-up actor Ricky Coogan (Alex Winter), who's being paid millions to trot down to South America and promote a widely-banned fertilizer concocted by corporate megolith Everything Except Shoes. With his pal Ernie (Michael Stoyanov) in tow, Rick trots over to Santa Flan to kick off his overpriced promotional tour, and he quickly bumps into an overly vocal protester named Julie (the too-cute-for-words Megan Ward). Even though Julie wants to pelt Ricky with cow shit, his deft disguise dupes her into tagging along on their South American road trip, and after buzzing past a bunch of billboards for a local freak show, she convinces 'em to stop for a peek. It's after hours, so it's too late for freak-master Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid) to give them the grand tour, but he does the next best thing -- using EES' toxic fertilizer sludge and transforming the three of them into hideous mutant freekz. Rick has been partially gremlinized, and Julie and Ernie have merged into some sort of half-feminist, half-misogynist abomination.
They're forced to perform with the rest of Skuggs' freak show, which includes a college accredited worm, a mutant who's more nose than man, a cowboy in the most literal sense of the word, a tourist with a sock puppet for a head (voiced by Bob Goldthwait), a busty pinhead, a horrifying frogman, a fire-farter, their charismatic, dog-faced leader, and, of course, a bearded lady (Mr. T). Although Ricky doesn't take well to freak-dom, his instant popularity with the crowd puts his fellow freaks at risk, and through no fault of his own, he cobbles together a scheme for them to bring down Skuggs and his mutant-molding machinations once and for all.
Okay, Freaked isn't exactly a plot-driven flick, and a stale, paragraph-long synopsis really doesn't do anyone any good. As long and rambling as that description was, I've barely scratched the surface of how fascinatingly odd this movie is, so...ignore everything I've scribbled down so far. Take the slapstick and make-up effects from Army of Darkness, the comedic sensibility of movies like UHF and Tapeheads, and every issue of Fangoria and Mad published between 1987 and 1993, then toss 'em in the cuisinart, whack a bunch of buttons, and watch something like Freaked dribble out. If that sounds like an intriguing combination, then...great! We can be best friends forever and bond over our soon-to-be-mutual love 'n admiration of Freaked. If not, then...why are you still reading?
First of all, I feel obligated to point out the genuinely impressive effects work. There's a lot of elaborate make-up work here, and even though Freaked was shot before CGI was a standard part of the effects toolkit, an awful lot of it still holds up really well today. It's not just the skill of Screaming Mad George and the small army of other people who contributed (and their work here was nominated for a Saturn Award in '94), but how clever the make-up design is. Alex Winter's half-transformed gremlin make-up impresses me as much today as it did twelve years ago, and I love the Rat Fink-ish approach to the mammoth mutants in the climax.
If I were to list every effect I liked, I'd wind up running through pretty much everyone in the very large cast, but fans of practical make-up effects will find a lot to appreciate in Freaked.
Despite the onslaught of grotesque make-up effects, Freaked is a comedy and doesn't have any horror pretensions, which is really just as well since no subgenre is more riddled with failures than the horror-comedy. Freaked continually thumbs its foam-rubber-latex-covered nose at convention. When Ricky's introduced to the other freaks, instead of having one character exposition-tastically go down the line and rattle off everyone's name, rank, and serial number, it's played as a game show. Also skewered are the anthemic music that invariably accompanies the obligatory building-up-to-the-climax montage, Our Hero™ filling the rest of his crew in on what his brilliant plan is for the final reel, unconvincing rear projection, overdramatic death scenes, arbitrarily-timed tunnel collapses, those "gasp!"-inducing shock moments that invariably wind up in the last couple of minutes in a movie... Lotsa stuff.
The really frustrating thing about trying to write a review like this is that I want to list how brilliant so much of the comedy is, but since a lot of the fun is that the jokes come from so far out of left field, going into any detail would just wind up spoiling everything. If I said something about the absurdity of thirteen milkmen, machine-gun-toting Rastafarian eyeballs, or twelve-armed, gender-ambiguous worker drones, it wouldn't sound nearly as funny as what happens in the movie, so just take it on faith. If you like the touchstones I pointed to earlier -- Tapeheads and UHF by way of Fangoria -- then you'll appreciate Freaked's sense of humor too. Promise. Some of the jokes do flop and flounder, but this is the sort of movie that takes a machine-gun approach, so it's inevitable that some'll miss the mark. More than enough of 'em work for this to be one of the funniest movies I've seen all year, and since all I do is sit perched in front of my TV and watch DVDs all day, that really does kinda mean something. It's also worth noting how lean the movie is, clocking in at 72 minutes minus the opening and closing credits. Freaked keeps the momentum of comic absurdity bounding forward for the entire length of the movie, so it's never given a chance to drag.
Freaked requires a very specific sense of humor to appreciate. I have it. You probably don't, 'cause if lots of people did, Fox would've given it a huge release, it would've grossed tens of millions of dollars, Alex Winter and Tom Stern would both be name directors, and we'd all be puttering around in flying cars or something. No, it's not for everyone, and no, not all of the comedy holds up all these years later, and no, it's not Shakespeare (although...wait! some of it is), but Freaked is a movie that's very deservedly managed to amass a cult following over the past decade or so, and the stellar job Anchor Bay's done in bringing it to DVD should make that cult at least a little larger.
Video: If I
felt like overindulging my love for excruciatingly bad puns, and...I do, I could say that it's freaky how spectacular this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is. Even though Freaked is closing in on its twelfth birthday, this DVD looks better than a lot of brand new releases. Bright, colorful, razor sharp, immaculately detailed, just a couple of barely discernable specks for the entire 80 minutes, and I guess that's enough commas for one sentence. The image looks a little grainy, particularly in some of the more dimly-lit shots, but that probably dates back to the original photography and shouldn't be considered a flaw with this DVD. Really exceptional.
Audio: Not quite as really exceptional is the Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps) audio. Not 'cause it's bad, but it is pretty much what you'd expect. Most of the action is anchored up front, and although the surrounds get a fair bit of use, they're not that prominent in the mix. The subwoofer sounds even more subdued, rarely belching out much in the way of particularly low frequencies. Dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly, although a couple of scattered lines are a little buried in the mix. The soundtrack is fine...good, even!...but it's on the timid side. A Dolby Digital stereo track (listed on the 'Audio' menu as stereo surround, although the actual track isn't flagged that way) is also provided. Oh, and the DVD's closed captioned, but there aren't any subtitles.
Supplements: Grab a cheese sandwich and pull up a chair 'cause this is going to take a while. There are a bunch of extras spread across this two-disc set, and first up is an audio commentary with co-writers/co-directors Tom Stern and Alex Winter. You'd hope an audio commentary with two comedy writers would be pretty entertaining throughout, and sure enough...! They're both extremely talkative throughout, filling every spare second with either some awesome Tale of Production or just poking fun at the movie itself.
The two of them run through Freaked's origins as a microbudget Butthole Surfers movie and its gradual evolution to a $12 million comedy, recasting around a raging boner, a blood-drenched pratfall, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert popping in for a cameo, the movie's whopping four CGI effects, and a seemingly endless supply of stories about Mr. T.
"Hijinks in Freekland" is twelve minutes of candid footage on the Freaked set featuring the cast and crew goofing around, including a decapitated "Thriller" dance and Mr. T showing off his mad ventriloquist skillz. A lot better than average. The same goes for the twenty-one minute "A Conversation with Tim Burns", the other writer on Freaked. It's kind of a mini-commentary, tackling pretty much everything from how he got yanked into the project to the process of writing a movie you don't realistically think'll ever get made to watching it get dumped as a new studio regime rolls into town. Along with the usual hee-larious anecdotes
about inadvertently drinking a cup of sweat and Mr. T's cookie obsession, Burns comments on some of what didn't wind up working so well on screen, how the overly ambitious script was gutted when production drew near and how a couple of freaks were lopped out entirely, and chatting about some of his favorite scenes that never made it into the final cut. Again, very good stuff.
The Wheel of Fortune spoof Burns mentions is one of the two deleted scenes cheerfully provided on this DVD. Although "two" doesn't sound like a particularly big number, these are pretty lengthy scenes, adding up to more than seven minutes total. Aside from the game show nod, there's also a tearful goodbye to the freaks that would've been plugged in just before the climax.
An art gallery piles on a stack of conceptual sketches, different poster designs, and storyboards. There's also a two minute full-frame trailer, and the screenplay (draft numero seven, 105 pages total) is served up in PDF format on the DVD-ROM side of the disc. The first DVD opens with trailers for Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Modern Problems, and License to Drive, and if you skip past 'em initially, there's another chance to give them a look on the first disc under the 'Also on DVD' extras submenu.
Popping in disc two, there's "the reehersel version" of Freaked. Shot in some sort of non-descript rehearsal space with a camcorder,
this pre-natal version of the movie runs 84 minutes in length and features some alternate dialogue and additional stuff that didn't make it into the finished product. I thought this was going to wind up being like the animatic versions of some animated movies where I think "hey, that's kind of a neat feature" and never, ever watch it, but I was surprised at how much I liked this very raw take on the material. There's just something compellingly strange about seeing Alex Winter in partial make-up, most of the cast (including an decaninized Keanu Reeves) standing around this completely empty rehearsal space with scripts in hand, and a couple of folding chairs being the closest thing to props the entire time.
Rehearsal footage rears its head a couple other times on the disc, including five and a half minutes of freak banter in "There Are No Weirdos Here!" and a few minutes with Alex Zuckerman as troll-ish Stuey Gluck. "Under Construkshen" spends three and a half minutes showing the construction of the Freek Land set, and with Aerosmith blaring in the background, the seven minute "Behold...The Beast Boy!" follows the application of Alex Winter's elaborate Beast Boy make-up.
If Freaked compels you to check out more of Tom Stern and Alex Winter's stuff, then...well, I guess that's the point of packing on a couple of their short films, beginning with the sixteen minute "Squeal of Death". Surreally strange and shot kind of like a '79 Devo video with something resembling a narrative, it's about the life and...so on of Howie (Winter), who suffered through a pretty thoroughly painful adolescence,
but it doesn't seem so bad later in life when you're packing heat. About as strange is their inventively titled 16mm class project "NYU Sight and Sound Project" -- full-frame, black and white, and not even a minute long -- about the underground fruit trade.
As great as everything crammed into this two-disc set is, the packaging's awfully nice too. The keepcase has a huge collage of the movie's cast of characters spanning both sides, and the partially-translucent slipcase has Randy Quaid on the front and all the usual promotional stuff on the flipside. Michael Felsher (not really) confirms and debunks a bunch of rumors swirling around Freaked in the disc's liner notes, the front of which rattles off the movie's sixteen chapter stops.
Conclusion: If you have the skewed sense of humor necessary to get much out of it, this two-disc set of Freaked looks great, sports a genuinely funny, unique comedy, and boasts hours of extras that really are worth taking the time to watch. The DVD's also cheap -- as I'm jotting all of this down, one online store carries it for $11.99 shipped. Alex Winter and Anchor Bay have gone to impressive lengths to make sure fans get their money's worth, and...yeah, it's highly recommended.