By its very nature, comedy is hard to wedge within a horror film. Unless you are attempting to pull off the almost impossible perfect lampoon, or dealing deliberately with the thin line between fear and foolishness, humor's place in the terror tale is usually reserved for the calm crack before the meat cleaver, or the post-slice and dice punchline of your standard slasher villain. Still, filmmakers do try to mesh the funny with the frightening, but the scales of success almost always tilt toward one side (scary) or the other (silly). Luckily, Brit bad boys Dan Palmer and Christian James have found a way to make the hilarious horrifying and the dreadful delirious. An unabashed love letter to '80s fright films and flummoxing fanboy obsessiveness, their first film, entitled Freak Out is a major movie macabre geek out. It's a nonstop reference-filled take on every conceivable cliché and contrivance that made the monster movies of the last few decades the ultimate terror trendsetters. Nutty, nonsensical and never taking itself too seriously, what should be a half-baked hit or miss proposition is actually one of the funniest, and most consistently clever offerings that outsider cinema has to offer.
Merv Doody is a horror nut who spends his days renting every available obscure fright flick from the local video store, and every night endlessly ingesting these frequently marginal movies. One day, an escaped mental patient breaks into his house, and hoping to create his own pocket pervert –- so to speak –- Merv starts training him in the fine art of cinematic slaughter. With a little help from his hopelessly horny loser of a buddy Onkey, Merv manages to make his loveable Looney into a sensitive, subjective slayer. Not necessarily given over to uncontrollable urges to maim and slaughter, circumstances have to be right before Looney gets garroting. After a birthday party with a body count higher than a hip hop awards banquet, the police arrest Merv. Seems they believe he is responsible for all the mass murdering going on. It is up to Onkey, and a few of Merv's more nerdy pals, to save his innocent behind from a lifetime in the lock-up. But Looney is not interested in seeing justice done. As a matter of fact, he won't be happy until blood is shed, body parts are butchered and heads are rolling alongside rivers of internal organs –- and Merv is high on his hit list.
Freak Out is a film that definitely grows on you. No, not like a fungus, or the latest release from some gloomy Goth act. At first, it's difficult to determine what filmmaking partners Dan Palmer and Christian James are up to. The set up follows the standard Hollywood horror hackdom –- a long ago schoolyard humiliation resulting in a virulent vow of future revenge –- and yet the reasons behind the shame are so silly, and the ensuing narrative so strange, that you honestly think something is purposefully being left out. Then the first big joke arrives (it has something to do with a return, 13 years later, to the scene of the indignity) and we start to get the message. Like a far more clever Scary Movie, or a Monty Python derived movie macabre, Palmer and James are out to imitate their favorite fright films while simultaneously sending up the genre every step of the way. Combining a little Benny Hill style slapstick, a healthy dose of Goodies era goofiness and more than a few nods to a certain Texas based nighttime soap opera, what we end up with is a compendium of styles and a wealth of worthy material. If it wasn't conceived and created before Shaun of the Dead delivered the definitive horror comedy, Freak Out would be in there, fighting feverishly for first place. But thanks to its independent homemade roots, it will have to settle for a still sensational second best.
There are a myriad of moments that truly click here, sequences were the stunning originality of Palmer and James' ideas intertwine perfectly with the movie they are mocking. There's a pair of shout outs to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead that are the best and brightest in any scare spoof, and on more than one occasion, the prerequisite retardation that accompanies any escape from evil is illustrated in a delightfully dopey manner. During one of the several false endings (another monster movie must), our heroes attempt to stop the slaughter by launching an oversized salami at the villain. The decision to use such a cured meat product does tie in directly to a motivational subtext inherent in the script, but the manner in which the attack is prepared reminds us of every bad action sequence where a MacGuyver like protagonist fashions a seemingly impossible and yet significant solution out of a gob of spit and some bird feces. There are even a couple of direct riffs from infamous '80s motion pictures, and a terrific take on The Blair Witch Project. From the fright film parodies revolving around arse piranhas and dog-faced killers to the unique characterizations given to the lame-ass leads at the center of the story, Palmer and James make Freak Out as much nonstop fun as possible. And if the terror is trimmed back just a little, it really doesn't matter.
Granted, not everything here works. Aside from co-writing and producing, Palmer also essays the role of Onkey. As slackers go, this bowling alley employee is so irritating at first that we just wish our serial killer in training would use his head as a practice target. Eventually, Palmer modulates Onkey's aggravation level, especially after a Rube Goldberg like sequence were our Hawaiian shirt wearing load becomes the unfortunate beneficiary of a groin full of hot oil. On the other hand, James Heathcoate as Merv has what is perhaps the ultimate UK deadpan. As a matter of fact, his performance could almost be considered comatose if it weren't for his third act transformation into a steely man of almost-action. Heathcoate has the hardest job in the entire film –- playing straight man to all the oddness going on around him -- and yet viewers will constantly catch themselves thinking about how successful Simon Pegg was in a similar cinematic situation. Still, he's a good match for Onkey's overwhelming extroversion. There will be some who grimace at the lisp-filled vocalizing of the Looney, and Merv's main squeeze, a vamping video store clerk whose about as hard-up as a honey can get, is more confusing than comical. Still, in an arena not know for its successes, Freak Out is a wonderfully wicked terror treat. Even the minor lapses in logic and likeability can't undermine its unusualness.
Handcrafted with what appears to be varying levels of camcorder technology, this near five year in the making epic gets a solid visual treatment by Anchor Bay. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is loaded with grain, spotty color-wise in certain instances, and has the overall feel of a cobbled together creation. Still, the amount of imagination and invention shown by all involved more than overcomes the few filmic shortcomings.
Presented in either a punk rock revving Dolby Digital 5.1 mega-mix, or a standard stereo 2.0, the aural elements of Freak Out are fantastic. Sure, some of the dialogue is hard to understand, but its not because of clarity or volume. No, as with many British comedies, the brogues bandied about by the cast can be Da Vinci Code undecipherable at times. Once you get used to them, though, the conversations are easily understandable.
Where this DVD presentation really departs from other indie offerings is in the bonus feature department. If we were to base this title on its added content alone, we'd be looking at an instant DVD Talk Collector's Series entry. The wealth of material available, and the manner in which it is presented establish an unbelievable benchmark in abundance that even big studio releases have a hard time matching. Disc 1 starts off with two absolutely stellar commentary tracks. The first features Palmer and James, along with their producing partner in crime Yazz Fetto. It's an amazingly dense – and quite hilarious – discussion, as the trio try their damnedest to deliver every detail of the production they can recall in the minimal space of a standard motion picture running time. They are funny, humble and quite competent when it comes to the ins and outs of the film business. A second track features Palmer and James again, and adds Heathcoate and actresses Nicola Connell and Chilli Gold. Moderated by BBC film critic James King, this is one reporter that has a difficult time keeping the entire genial gathering from de-evolving into total random chaos. Still, the lightening fast influx of anecdotes and gossip makes for a lively, engaging dialogue.
Even better, Disc 2 delivers an astonishing bounty of additional extras. There is a major making-of, a look at the Herculean process that went into Freak Out. Then we get some selected audio commentary by actual online messageboard fans. It's one of the more unique elements here, and shows you what fanboy nation looks for in a film. Next up is a guide to the fine art of 'bum feeling' (crucial for getting out of those sticky scary movie jams) and a five minute film school hosted by none other than Mr. Arse Piranha himself. Finally, we get a glimpse at the less than special effects that went into the film's supposedly 'explosive' finale. But that's not all. In a menu section called "The Video Store", we are treated to over 17 deleted scenes (each with an incredibly clever and winning introduction by the Freak Out filmmakers) trailers for two of the films-within-the-film featured, a look at the hilarious "Zaniac" music video, a segment about the movie from a local cable access show and the entire Blair Witch Project stage play (worth the price of this DVD set alone for sheer comic brilliance). When you add in Anchor Bay's usual collection of trailers, we end up with a wonderful compendium of a film's creation. From initial idea to final product, Freak Out's digital packaging is one of the best of 2006.
It's a tough call again for your resident outsider film critic. On the one hand, Freak Out is an obvious labor of lunacy created by some guys who spent way too much time bootlegging video nasties in their youth. All flaws should be forgiven and all Collector's Series considerations should be given. On the other hand, not everything here works well, and for every element as astonishing as the ballsy Burkittsville parody, we get some sloppy scripting and aggravating ancillary activity. While the technical aspects of the release would definitely put it over the top, it is clear that some fright fans will feel this is all much ado about bluffing. In that regard, a reluctant but well earned Highly Recommended is tendered, supported by a significant creative caveat. If you believe that the Scary Movie franchise has done nothing but undermine your favorite cinematic category, if you hate the notion of comedy coming in close contact with blood and/or guts, if your fear factors lean more toward the violence porn part of the genre than the baffling b-movie merriment of the past, then you should certainly avoid this jazzy jokeathon at all costs. If, on the other hand, you have no issues with psychos acting silly, then Freak Out is the film for you. It's some of the craziest cult claptrap you will witness in the entire arena of indie horror.
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