These are the movies that are so strange, so deliriously out of whack that they stop even our hard-bitten writers in their tracks. These are the films that are weird beyond belief, the ones that stick with you whether you want them to or not. Spectrum Culture is pleased to present a new Film Feature: WTF?
There’s a strong chance you’ve seen Freaked and don’t know it. Think: do you have an irrational fear of socks and imagine them speaking to you in the voice of Bobcat Goldthwait? Do you sometimes find yourself waking from a nightmare where Mr. T is a bearded lady? Perhaps you’re haunted by visions of a dog boy who looks eerily like Keanu Reeves? If you suffer from one or more of these symptoms, it’s quite likely you were exposed to Freaked at a young age and remained blissfully unaware of the source until now.
Until recently, you were most likely to come across Freaked while surfing through cable channels at an ungodly hour because you and your friends were trying to stay awake for a full 24 hours at a sleepover. It’s under those conditions that Freaked is perhaps best viewed since it’s a fever dream of a film, a kind of circus sideshow for masochists who like their comedy spiked with liberal doses of gleeful ugliness.
One story goes that Alex Winter, i.e. the other guy from the Bill & Ted movies, made Freaked partially out of a desire to utterly and completely destroy his career. For all practical purposes he succeeded in this. Made for a budget of $11 million, give or take, the film made a whopping $29,296 in the US (Ed: according to Alex Winter in an e-mail to us, this was because Fox refused to officially release the film, only placing it on two screens nationwide for a short time) despite relatively strong critical acclaim and Winter more or less disappeared from the spotlight.
The likelier scenario is that 20th Century Fox, as was the case with the test audiences they screened the film for, expected another Bill and Ted style comedy instead of what was, in Alex Winter’s own words, an attempt “to make the ultimate cult film that would rake all the elements you’d see in a cult film and exaggerate them a hundred times.”
It’s unclear why Fox was ever under the impression that a new Bill and Ted-style buddy comedy was what they were going to get from Winter and his partner Tom Stern. Freaked tells the story of Ricky Coogin (Winter), a pretty boy actor who’s convinced to go to South America and promote a new fertilizer called Zygot 24 for vague corporate behemoth EES (Everything Except Shoes). Coogin is traveling with his partner in crime Ernie (Michael Stoyanov) and Julie (Megan Ward) a young anti-Zygot 24 protester they somehow manage to convince to tag along with them.
Sounds relatively straightforward, right? Except that plot is pretty much abandoned before the movie has really even begun, instead shifting its focus to the aforementioned ugliness. You see, Zygot 24 has the unfortunate side effect of wildly mutating anyone it touches and freak show proprietor Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid, in the performance of a lifetime) has made himself a tidy little profit by luring in suckers like Ricky and his crew and turning them into the titular freaks through large doses of the stuff. Before Ricky and his pals even get there, Skuggs already has in his stable a Bearded Lady (Mr. T…yes, that Mr. T), a man with a sock for a head (Bobcat Goldthwait), an intellectual worm man, a Dog Boy and a whole slew of others.
Stern and Winter use this set-up as an opportunity to craft a never-ending chain of visual gags, pop culture references and enough sick humor to make Trey Parker and Matt Stone blush. Freaked is a veritable cornucopia of oddities, a work that relishes in cult history and makes a proud point of being senseless and bewildering, forcing viewers to constantly ask themselves what, exactly, they’re watching. You can’t really describe what happens in it, it absolutely has to be seen.
In their cluelessness, Fox dumped a metric shit ton of funds into building a cultural empire for the film before it had even been completed, with planned comic, video game and toy tie-ins as well as a novelization by The Wave author Todd Strasser. A cursory glance at the credits of the people involved with the film would have made it clear that Freaked was never going to be a family friendly, merely quirky picture; Winter and Stern had just come off creating the pioneering MTV sketch comedy show “The Idiot Box” and that program was surreal to the extreme, even by MTV comedy standards.
Outside of Winter and Stern was the involvement of Butthole Surfers Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary, who were an active part of the writing process and wrote the score for the film. At some point in its development, Freaked was even meant to be a vehicle for the Surfers, with Winter’s intention to make it a mash-up of Evil Dead and Beach Blanket Bingo.
That anything-goes, balls-to-the-wall, near rabid mentality is what drives Freaked’s cult. There’s simply no other film like it, particularly in the way it seamlessly weaves between high and lowbrow references without ignoring or abandoning its brutal insistence on keeping things ugly at all times. The dichotomy that the film excels at is perhaps clearest in a scene where Ricky, freshly turned into a half-man, half-freak disaster, performs a soliloquy from Richard III, complete with an aside from an Oxford professor who handily provides subtitles for “the culturally illiterate.” And what do the subtitles say? Simply “I’m ugly” and “I can’t get laid.”
Despite all the ugliness, the film is immensely entertaining and rewatchable, since every scene is jampacked with a near infinite number of gags and references. It’s one of the few WTF? films I can think of that can go toe-to-toe with any of its peers in the batshit craziness category without sacrificing any entertainment value whatsoever. Every time I watch it I come away with a new favorite moment, whether it’s the Rastafarian disembodied eyes that Skugg uses to police his freak camp or the fact that Stern and Winter aren’t content enough to write a line like “You’re uglier than the burnt nose hairs of a dead nun,” they actually have to have a nun in frame laughing at the insult.
by Nick Hanover