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,Freaked

Freaked

It remains anyone's guess as to what sort of return 20th Century Fox expected when the studio threw $10,000,000 at first-time filmmakers Alex Winter and Tom Stern in 1992 for use in realizing their original screenplay Hideous Mutant Freekz. Winter and Stern had met at New York University a decade earlier and, although they had failed to charm their film professor at the Tisch School of the Arts, the duo's anarchic short films found a receptive audience on the USA Network magazine program Night Flight and caught the attention of MTV. By this time, Winter had attained a level of cult credibility as a supporting player in Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys (1987) and as Keanu Reeves' costar in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). For MTV, Winter and Stern conceived The Idiot Box (1991), a Groove Tube (1974) style anthology series of comedy sketches inspired by Tex Avery, film noir and the collected works of Troma Entertainment. The series reveled in taboo-shattering levels of unpleasantness; in the opening sketch of the first episode, a riff on Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), Winter introduced the lineup of sketches from the trunk of a towncar while being stabbed in the guts by an angry mobster.

Winter and Stern had been given carte blanche by MTV as compensation for an almost complete lack of resources. Declining the offer of a second season, the partners decided to turn their sweat equity into profit. Familiars of the American punk band The Butthole Surfers, they roughed out the idea for a low budget horror movie to star their musician friends as Texas cannibals who lure unsuspecting tourists to their roadside carnival/slaughterhouse. A pencil sketch of this scenario had been the 1988 short Entering Texas, which prefigured Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and featured American independent film actor John Hawkes (Me and You and Everyone We Know [2005], Winter's Bone [2010]) as the luckless paterfamilias of a Nixon era nuclear unit that has unwisely gone off-road for "family barbecue." The executives at 20th Century Fox bought the pitch but demanded considerable changes to the material, substantially reducing the Butthole Surfers's involvement in the picture but greenlighting an obviously grotesque parable about greed, assimilation and acceptance.

Perhaps Fox thought it was getting another Repo Man (1984) or Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) with what ultimately came to be called Freaked (1993). Though Alex Cox had flamed out (at least from the perspective of a Hollywood bean counter), Tim Burton was still going from strength to strength with his unique and visually arresting paeans to stunted adolescence and these numbers might have given the studio hope. What Fox got for its investment frightened them so much that Freaked was given the most cursory of platform releases - netting in the process a pathetic $29,000 in rentals - before being remaindered to home video. Ironically, it was on the small screen that Winter and Stern's bid for big screen legitimacy reached its intended audience, as Freaked looped on cable TV and found its niche in the cult films section of video stores across the nation.

Two decades after the fact, Freaked plays as well as an in-your-face slice of agit-prop cinema as it does as a relic of happier, while-the-studio-wasn't-looking times. The Skidoo (1968) of circus freak movies, the feature buries pretty boy A-lister Keanu Reeves under heavy make-up for an unbilled bit as Ortiz the Dog Boy, offers Mr. T in a dress (as a bearded lady, one of the carnival's more palatable attractions) and boasts the first ironic use of Brooke Shields. Most of the film's budget went to special effects, which run the gamut from stop motion animation (courtesy of Dave Allen, of Equinox [1970] and Flesh Gordon [1974] fame) to prosthetic make-up by Screaming Mad George to men in giant eyeball suits. Another of the film's assets is its Psychotronic cast, which includes Bobcat Goldthwait (as a human-sized sock puppet), Morgan Fairchild, former Late Night with David Letterman troupe Calvert DeForest (aka Larry "Bud" Melman), William Sadler, John Hawkes, Michael Stoyanov (then one of the stars of the feel-good NBC sitcom Blossom) and Randy Quaid, as dream- and-monster maker Elijah C. Skuggs, whose sideshow ringmaster cum mad scientist is one-third Tod Browning, one-third Colonel Sanders and one-third Josef Mengele. The film's production designer was Catherine Hardwicke, later the director of Twilight (2008).

All but disowned by its home studio and vaulted after its VHS resurrection, Freaked languished for years, subsequent releases complicated by regime changes within the executive suites at 20th Century Fox and rights issues related to the use of music cues from such artists and bands as the Butthole Surfers, Henry Rollins, Blind Idiot God, Parliament Funkadelic, and avant-jazz musician Bill Laswell. Six years after the introduction of DVD, Freaked was given a belated but lavish two-disc special edition digital debut from Anchor Bay Entertainment, complete with audio commentary and behind-the-scenes footage... but it remains obscure and unheralded. Perhaps that is as it should be. Pitched as it was against the mainstream, as a double-dog-dare to the faint of heart, Freaked works best as a rare find, an unexploded bomb. It's an off-midway attraction barking at passersby from the lightless interior of its moldy oddities tent to enter at their own risk.

Producers: Stephen Chiodo, Harry J. Ufland, Mary Jane Ufland
Directors: Alex Winter, Tom Stern
Writers: Alex Winter, Tom Stern, Tim Burns
Original Music: Kevin Kiner
Cinematography: Jamie Thompson
Editor: Malcolm Campbell
Special Makeup Effects: Screaming Mad George
Production Design: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Alex Winter (Rick Coogan), Randy Quaid (Elijah C. Skuggs), Michael Stoyanov (Ernie), Megan Ward (Julie), William Sadler (Dick Brian), Alex Zuckerman (Stuey Gluck), Mr. T (Bearded Lady), John Hawkes (Cowboy), Lee Arenberg (The Eternal Flame), Bobcat Goldthwait (Voice of Sockhead), Brooke Shields (Skye Daley), Morgan Fairchild (Stewardess), Derek McGrath (Worm), Brian Brophy (Kevin), Jeff Kahn (Nosey), Patti Tippo (Rosie the Pinhead), Tim Burns (Frogman), Gibby Haynes (Cheese Wart), Calvert DeForest (Larry "Bud" Melman), Tom Stern (Milkman), Keanu Reeves (Ortiz, the Dog Boy).
C-86 min.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Alex Winter interview by Mondo Justin, The Mondo Film & Video Guide, April 2011 VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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