Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Freaked (1993)... Angie's Pick for October


There are a number of movies I have memorized by heart, but none more so than the Bill & Ted films. (Well, maybe The Little Mermaid. It's close.) I don't just know all the lines, I know the facial expressions, the musical cues, everything. While the films sparked my love for Keanu Reeves in my youth, and makes me more forgiving than most of his poor acting skills even today, I also hold a special place in my heart for his co-star, Alex Winter. Alex is a little more difficult to find than his counterpart, spending a lot of his time post-Bill behind the camera rather than in front of it. But he did have one starring role after those films, in a film he co-wrote and co-directed called Freaked.

The film starts off with a fantastic animated credits sequence that is sure to get your attention. The punk score and bright colors may scream early 90s at you, but the animation style is so interesting that it masks the dated nature of it all.

From there, we're brought to the set of talk show, where former childhood star Ricky Coogan, who has been horribly disfigured, comes to tell his story. He was approached by the large corporation EES (Everything Except Shoes) to promote Zygro 24, a chemical that has been banned in the US and Europe. The company (whose CEO is played by William Sadler, aka Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) insists the product is safe, even though the guy who works at the plant shrinks down in size as he's explaining all this to Ricky. They offer Ricky 5 million dollars, and as pompous and greedy as he is, he can't refuse.

Ricky takes his best friend Ernie with him. Ernie is played by Michael Stoyanov, best known for being the less "whoa-ful" of Blossom's brothers. Ricky's biggest fan, Stewie, has also stowed away on the plane, and the boys get a great laugh at seeing him hurt. At the airport, groups are protesting the chemical and Ricky's involvement with it. Ricky finds one of the girls attractive and covers himself in bandages just to get close to her. He's unable to keep up the act when she insults his acting ability.

On the way to the factory, he sees advertisements for a freak show and they decide to stop. They meet Elijah Skuggs, who manages the show. He offers to show them a private exhibit, since the show isn't going on that night. It's all just a ruse, though, and he actually ties the three of them up in order to turn them into freaks, which he does with the help of his machine and Zygrot 24. The transformations are done with stop motion animation and a lot of fun. He merges Ernie with Julie, the protester, and turns Ricky into an even more gruesome form of Two-Face. He really wanted to transform Ricky completely, but ran out of Zygrot 24, so he locks Ricky in his outhouse until he can get more to finish the job. The outhouse is apparently a TARDIS, as it's huge on the inside.

Ernie and Julie can't help but vomit when they look at him, and while their reaction is obviously exaggerated for laughs, his get up is quite disgusting, particularly when he spurts puss from warts on his face and hand. Ricky meets the other freaks, including an uncredited Keanu Reeves covered in hair as Ortiz the dog boy. There is also a human worm, a nose man , a cow boy (as in, he's a cow), a bearded lady (played by Mr. T), sock head (voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait), The Eternal Flame (who continually farts flame), a female pinhead, and a frog man (who's just a French guy in a diving suit).

Ricky is not yet ready to accept his fate. The freaks share their stories with him (including a hammer lying on the ground that used to be a wrench), but Ricky is still in denial. He's convinced that EES will come and save him and put him back to normal. He also discovers that he has a psychic connection with Stewie now, and Stewie goes around telling people about Ricky's plight, which gets him captured. I think we're not technically supposed to know that it's EES capturing him, but who else do you think it would be?

The freaks perform a show, and for the main event, Ricky does Shakespeare. The audience loves him. A man from EES arrives and tells Ricky how ugly he is, and the crowd turns on him. Ricky flies into a rage and the audience leaves in a panic, but Skruggs is happy.

Ricky takes advantage of a milk man to escape the outhouse, but two giant Rastafarian eyeballs stop him. Ricky finds out that Skruggs' plan is to have him transform into a full monster and kill all the other freaks at the end of the next show. On his way back to the outhouse, he runs into the other freaks, who are also trying to escape as milkmen. He gets into a fight with Ortiz when they don't believe him. Ortiz is distracted by a squirrel, and when the eyeballs run him off, the freaks accept Ricky as their leader. They hatch a plan to defeat Skruggs and escape. They sneak into his lab and manage to make a formula that would turn Ricky into a good superfreak, but they leave it there when Skruggs shows up.

EES arrives with Stewie in tow. They want to use Skruggs mutation machine to mutate workers so they have extra arms and other extremities to increase production. Stewie sneaks around them to steal the good superfreak formula and bring it to Ricky during the freak show, but an audience member pours it over Stewie instead, transforming him. In response, Skruggs pours his goo on Ricky, completing his transformation, and Ricky and Stewie fight. The costumes for the two superfreaks are really impressive.

In the midst of the chaos, EES tries to steal Skuggs machine, so he pours goo on them as well, merging them all into nothing but a shoe. Because of course. Ricky almost kills Stewie, until he realizes he truly cares about the boy. Skuggs attacks Ricky, but Ricky is far too strong for him. Skuggs ends up in a vat of the chemical and comes out as Brooke Shields, the host of the talk show we saw at the beginning of the movie. Most of the freaks are cured because they had eaten some macaroons they didn't realize had antidote in them. There's a fun reveal where Ricky had been in shadow during the talk show scenes during the film, and his profile looks like him in freak form, but when they turn the light, on you realize there's just a cactus behind him. Brooke Shields is revealed to still be Skuggs, but Julie (now separated from Ernie) shoots and kills him. But of course there is a fake out death so Ernie can then arrive and shoot him again, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Writing out the plot for this film, and watching it right on the heels of Leonard Part 6, you can see that these movies are both overly silly in their own way, and logic is thrown out the window for the sake of laughs. But unlike Leonard Part 6, it seems pretty clear to me that everyone on the set of this film was having a ridiculously good time. They know the absurdity they are dealing with, and they embrace it fully. Some of the jokes are in poor taste and don't age well by today's standards, but I'm more willing to forgive it because the movie as a whole is irreverent and gross.

The initial creature designs are done by Screaming Mad George, and for the most part, they look fantastic. While their movements aren't always perfect, they are well done. The biggest problem is for Winter, as the design leaves him limited in conveying emotion and speaking in a muffled voice behind the half prosthetic in his mouth. But even so, I think he does a great job with it, and the fact that this is a comedy and not a drama means it's not much of an issue.

The movie manages to be both a chance to see Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, and William Sadler acting together again, and also a silly comedy that hits my funny bone in just the right way. But I can also see it not appealing to everyone. While I'm hoping both Jak and Noel will appreciate it, I figure it's also entirely possible they may not care for it at all.


Like Angie, I couldn't help but compare this film to Leonard Part 6 while watching it. On paper, they're absolutely the same type of chaotic, silly nonsense. The plot is crazy, the characters completely over-the-top, random asides and gags are pelted at us several times a minute just to keep us on our toes. The problem with Leonard was that it had actors who didn't get how to deliver the material and filmmakers who didn't get how to capture it. Here, we don't have that problem. Everyone has just the right mad gleam in their eyes as they sink their grotesquely mutated teeth into every crazy line, and properly mug with the pantomime zeal of a silent film actor in every perfectly framed, canted, or whirling shot. Every action, every choice, every music cue, every background drone of ignited farts just because the Eternal Flame is standing there, is pitched to perfection so as to sell each moment for all it's worth.

The problem is that I don't find a lot of it to be worth all that much.

No, Angie, I don't enjoy this film. I don't dislike it, and certainly don't loathe it to the degree I do Leonard, because they do admirably pull off everything they set out to achieve. That's good for them, and I appreciate them for it. I just don't know that I wanted to see them achieve everything they set out to. A decade ago, I probably would have thought this was one of the funniest films around. I may be steadily growing a stick up my butt, because these days I'm a lot more sensitive to things like the gay bashing when those of a "sensitive disposition" are focused on and told to get out, frequent abuse is heaped on a child for a chuckle just because he's aggravating in his sincere admiration, and Rosie the Pinhead is just downright wrong, especially to someone like myself who has a mentally handicapped individual in my life. Surprisingly, I don't find Mr. T's bearded lady as transphobic as I expected. It's a transformation she took on willingly, and wears it with confidence and grace, and is surprisingly never made fun of for it.

I wish she had represented the majority of the film, that these are genuine people beneath their outward unusual appearances. There are moments where the film seems to want to explore this angle, of people not only longing to be accepted by the public, but by themselves, yet they're far too fleeting for the film to ever find that anchor of emotional weight. We hear about what Ernie and Julie learn by having their gender politics thrown out of whack, but we never really get to see them take that journey because they're too busy actually whacking one another. Ortiz, a proud, confident man, is on the verge of being the one to challenge Ricky to accept the state he's found himself in and wear it with pride, but then Ortiz is off chasing a squirrel and we don't see him again until the end. Even Worm's lectures come in the voice of a snob, and end with him desiring someone to wipe his ass for him. The film gets so caught up in all these crazy things they can get away with that they forget to take a few extra minutes to try to be something just a little bit more, just a little bit deeper, to ultimately give it all meaning. And isn't the theme of accepting who you are left somewhat moot by the majority of them being cured in the end?

The look of the film absolutely is superb, with excellent makeup effects of both a subtle and completely over-the-top nature, but there's a point where they go maybe just a bit beyond over-that-top than they needed to. I love Worm, and Cowboy, and especially the Rastafarian eyeballs with machine guns (not as racist as you'd expect it to be), but I don't know that I need the random moments of bloody gore as people actually violently die, the constant references to turds, and have I mentioned I hate few things as much as vomit jokes? Yeah, you can imagine how much I loved the scene where Julie and Ernie are firehosing the contents of their shared stomach. Additionally, a lot of the actual gags and one-liners fall flat for me, so all I'm left with are shrill sights of absolute grotesquery, screaming and flinging puss at me from my TV. Again, I can't say it's entirely bad as that's exactly the film they wanted to make, but it sure doesn't make for a night of entertainment I enjoy partaking in.

Which isn't to say I dislike it all. I did get a few solid laughs in there, like with the Ramada Inn towels, the backstory of the hammer, and the notion that thirteen people disguised as milkmen is just one milkman too many, and there are some great performances, particularly by Randy Quaid, Michael Stoyanov, and *gasp* Keanu Reeves. The problem isn't them, it's just that a lot of the humor feels forced, like we're supposed to laugh at it just because of how absurd and random and grotesque it is, instead of actually crafting something witty which has something to say.

Again, I don't hate this movie. It's amusing enough and has some neat ideas and visual effects, but it ultimately doesn't work for me. All of the energy and garish inventiveness on display makes for a lovingly crafted rubber mask of an entertaining film experience, but once you get past the surface, it's still just a rubber mask, with nothing beneath it to give depth to what we see on the outer layer. One could argue that Alex Winter is what lies beneath this mask, but while I think he's definitely a capable filmmaker, and I've enjoyed some of the other work I've seen (especially the live-action Ben 10 movies), he's not a particularly gifted storyteller nor comedic writer. And I'm sorry Angie, he's not that good of an actor, either. And it's not just the makeup, as he's really lousy in the scenes where he's not covered in prosthetics, too. Too much overly forced mugging, dancing around with word emphasis which kills a lot of his one-liners, and he's just not that appealing of a lead.

So I'm sorry, Angie. It didn't work for me.


Unlike Leonard Part 6, I'd never heard of this movie before, not so much as the dimmest memory of a sun-bleached box in the video store, so I didn't have any idea of what to expect. The intense and very uniquely well done opening credits suggested I was in for a sort of gross-out acid trip of a movie.

As usual, my initial impression was wrong. Well, sort of. It's a lot closer to an edgy cartoon brought to life, successfully (the makeup is worth the price of admission alone), complete with some truly awful jokes.

Locked in an outhouse that operates under the physical laws of a Dungeons & Dragons Bag of Holding, mutated beyond any hope of returning to his former life, our hero Ricky struggles with a small door labeled "Fyre Exit" which refuses to open. "That's against the law!" he cries - out of his entire dire situation, this is what he chooses to focus his frustration on. This is one of the bits that works - or maybe I should amend that to say that this is one of the bits that works for me. This movie is so full of wildly different stabs at comedy that it's less a consistently funny movie and more a way to determine exactly what your sense of humor is. You, any of you, even you, WILL find at least two parts that will make you laugh out loud, though the rest of the movie may be a slog of groans getting to those parts.

The story is paper-thin lunacy, and I'd be grasping for cynicism if I thought that was anything other than intentional. If Rad was mid-80s concentrate, Freaked is early 90s extract. And like a lot of things from the early-to-mid 90's, it's not about the story as much as it's about the attitude and the presentation. When I looked up information on it after watching, I wasn't surprised at all to find out that the writing and directing team were also behind MTV's The Idiot Box, because the humor and pacing is much more like a sketch comedy show than most comedy films I've seen.

As Angie pointed out, the cast and crew obviously had a riot making this, and that's what makes me enjoy it far more than the similarly paced and similarly bizarre Leonard Part 6, which felt more like a paint-by-numbers, "insert joke here" affair of crass marketing than anything entertaining. If something's not going to end up being very good, it should at least have some element of "look how much fun we had" behind it. This has that all over it.

So while I didn't ultimately find it to be what I'd call "a good movie", I don't hate it for its unevenness, either. When it misses, it misses awkwardly and noticeably. However, when it hits, it hits hard and well. "The hideous frogman!" is my new favorite movie moment.


Noel, I can understand that some of the jokes here are just too offensive to be taken lightly these days. The pinhead is no doubt there as a reference to Tod Browning's Freaks, but that doesn't make her portrayal any less cringe-worthy. The gay bashing was something that was so commonplace for the time period (this is just a couple years after Alex and Keanu were calling each other the f word after hugging, for instance), but we've come so far that it comes off badly now and the attempt at making some kind of lesson about how we view gender roles with Julie and Ernie comes off completely disingenuous. The movie clearly puts attempts at comedy over being respectful or, as you point out, having any kind of meaning, and as both you and Jak said, some of those attempts just don't work. So I can certainly understand if some of the more offensive ones are too difficult to overlook.

As Jak said, this movie is very early 90s. The soundtrack, the offensiveness, and the style are all firmly from that time period. And I think it's obvious that my love of Bill & Ted goes a long way in making me fond of the film despite some of its bad spots. I'm not even going to pretend like Alex Winter is a good actor. Much like Keanu, he seems born to portray Bill S. Preston, Esquire and comes off awkward in most other roles. If this film wasn't so cartoonish in style, his acting wouldn't work. But the fact that he hasn't really done any acting since means he's aware of it as well.

And Noel is right, this film has no real message to speak of. I went through and watched the film again with commentary from Alex Winter and Tom Stern, and near the end, when Ricky stops just short of killing Stewie, Alex attempts to say that the theme of the film is that love conquers all. But he does so with a chuckle, and this is after the two of them spent most of the commentary laughing at their own jokes and occasionally reminiscing. They also pointed out repeatedly that they made this when they were 25 years old and knew nothing, and that pretty clearly shows.

When I was in college, I took a film as literature class. We had a group project, and my group picked Reservoir Dogs. At the end, after we had all talked about various scenes and how their presentation conveys various ideas and portrays the characters, the professor asked us what the message of the film was. We suggested that the film asks if there is honor among thieves, and answers it with a no. But it's a fairly shallow message. That film, like many of Tarantino's works, is more about the snappy nature of the dialogue, the excellent selection of the soundtrack, and the style he brings to his shots. And I love every bit of it. My point being that sometimes I enjoy style over substance, as long as the style is executed well.

As I said before, this movie isn't for everyone. Your tolerance for the low brow has to be pretty high. But for those not easily offended, who love a high dose of insanity and cartoonishness, this is a film worth checking out.

We'll be back on the 1st of November with a pick from Noel: BMX Bandits (1983)


Tony Williams said...

This was in heavy rotation for a while on Cinemax back in the day. I'm certain I watched it in snatches, likely surfing in to the final few minutes waiting for Cinemax after dark to start. Not sure I ever endeavored to watch the entire thing. I remember next to nothing about it, save that I found it somewhat unpleasant. Still, Mr. T as a bearded lady? It can't be all bad.

Strannik said...

It's fascinating what sort of oddities manage to get filmed. And get a theatrical release. Freaked doesn't really sound like my cup of tea, but I have to applaud everyone involved for at least trying to make something different and not obviously commercial. Even if the execution was a bit lacking.