All posts by Rob Steele

CAPSULE: FREAKED (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stern, Alex Winter

FEATURING: Alex Winter, , Megan Ward, Michael Stoyanov, William Sadler, Brooke Shields, Bobcat Goldthwait, Morgan Fairchild, Mr. T,  (uncredited), Larry “Bud” Melman

PLOT: A sleazy Hollywood actor is hired by an evil corporation to go to South America where he is immediately kidnapped by a freak show owner who transforms him and his friends into Hideous Mutant Freekz.

Still from Freaked (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Freaked is a very weird movie, its weirdness stems more from the “anything goes” school of gonzo comedy. It’s like Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine come to life with the aesthetic sensibility of a Robert Williams painting. Heck, maybe it should make the List.

COMMENTS: Freaked is a fine example of a small wave of bizarre films that made their way into theaters in the early 1990s. Too strange for the mainstream and too unpolished for the art houses, most of these movies were dumped into a few theaters with no fanfare and only found later life on VHS, cable or DVD, if even then. Other examples include Rubin and Ed (1991) and the Certified Weird The Dark Backward (1991).

Originally titled “Hideous Mutant Freekz,” Freaked was the brainchild of directors Tom Stern and Alex Winter, who were then coming off their short-lived sketch comedy show The Idiot Box. Winter, who is still most well known as being half of the duo Bill & Ted, also stars as the lead, Ricky Coogin.

That this is a ’90s affair should be immediately obvious from the opening, which features some of the most eye-blistering claymation you will ever see, set to the tune of a Henry Rollins song. From there we jump right into the plot, which involves ex-teen heartthrob Ricky Coogin being romanced by the evil EES Corporation (“Everything Except Shoes”) to act as their spokesperson in South America for their product Zygrot 24. After a few gags and character introductions, the movie finds itself in the freak show fun by Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid). Skuggs immediately kidnaps our protagonists and transforms them into monstrosities by using (surprise!) Zygrot 24.

The freak show camp is really the heart of the film. In fact, the sequence introducing the freaks may give you the best sense of the movie: it’s done using the set-up for the game show Hollywood Squares, complete with the skeleton of Paul Lynde as center square. Other freaks include the Worm, Sockhead (who has a sock-puppet for a head), Mr. T as the Bearded Lady, and so on.

What separates this film from other mile-a-minute comedies, and makes it most memorable as weird, is the density and bizarreness of its gags. Like a comic book, every frame of the film is packed with jokes that may go completely unnoticed upon first viewing. On top of that, the gags are just strange piled upon strange. For example, Coogin’s first escape attempt, which involves a milkman and a turd shaped like a naked Kim Basinger, is thwarted by a pair of giant Rastafarian eyeballs with machine-guns. Why? Because that’s always funny.

At this point I should mention the entire movie is told in flashback during a talk show hosted by none other than Brooke Shields.

This is a pretty great movie, and of the funniest unknown movies to make its way out of the ‘90s. It’s a shame that it died an ignoble and unsupported death, but it’s not clear that a wider release would have enabled the film to find an audience either. Freaked clearly isn’t for everybody. However, for those whom it is for (“Mad” Magazine-addicts, kids who grew up with “Big Daddy” Roth model kits, C-list celebrity fans), it’s a love letter in animatronic clothing. If you can find it, it’s worth picking up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I suppose there could be some sort of subversive angle to all the madness on display here, but I suspect it’s just what happens when you get a bunch of hipsters too weird for their own good in a room together and ask them to come up with something funny.”–Keith Breese, AMC filmcritic.com (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: BIG MAN JAPAN [DAI NIHONJIN] (2007)

Reader review by Rob Steele [AKA Mofo Rising]

DIRECTED BY: Hitoshi Matsumoto

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto

PLOT: Not-so-lovable loser transforms into significantly larger loser to battle some of the

Still from Big Man Japan (2007)

weirdest monsters to ever threaten Japan.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: On a purely visual level, Big Man Japan has a bizarre aesthetic that nobody else would rightly consider.  Beyond that, the film’s humor is often so subtle that you don’t realize what strange territory you’ve stumbled into until it ends up battling it out on the screen in its underwear.  This film is just weird.

COMMENTS: Did you ever watch Mike Myers defend the male nudity in Austin Powers by claiming that the naked male form has been a comedic stereotype in British humor for years, but you still got the sense that he just enjoyed running around naked?  Well, Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto has taken Myer’s original intent and literally writ it large for the big screen.  Prepare yourself for a loving CGI rendition of the male form, with every stray hair delineated and a paunch that could kill.

Matsumoto doesn’t stop there.  His film, Big Man Japan, is as loving a tribute to pure loser-dom as you could hope to film.  His character is the none-too-bright heir to monster fighters in an alternate-reality Japan where giant monsters attack on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, while his monster-battlin’ grandfather was considered a hero, he is now a national joke, fighting inexplicably ridiculous monsters for increasingly little ratings.  (His show now only airs in the wee hours of the morning.)  As if being a national joke was not enough, our current Big Man manages to fail every time he is called up to bat.

Big Man Japan is a slow burn of a film.  If you are familiar with celebration of wrong-headed intentions Christopher Guest has been putting out for years, you should be comfortable here.  The majority or the film focuses on interviews with our loser as he is subtly confronted with his abject shame in society. Luckily for us, every twenty minutes or so, he must fight against a bizarre menagerie of monsters in CGI battles that are, to say the very least, uncomfortable.

This is an odd film.  But before you throw it out, stick around for the ending.  I’m not going to give it away here, and I’m not even sure I could if I tried.  Suffice to say, I laughed like a maniac, probably to the consternation of all my friends.

Big Man Japan is nothing else other than Big Man Japan.  Before you venture in, I recommend you watch the preview.  If it looks at all interesting to you (you’re a small crowd), watch it.  You may be unpleasantly surprised.  Or the opposite.  No real way to predict your fate with this film.  Suffice to say, don’t expect to get out unscathed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part character study, part media satire and, by its finale, altogether bizarre, ‘Big Man Japan’ plays a bit like a quieter, weirder version of ‘Hancock’… the most impressive special effect here is Mr. Matsumoto’s hilariously restrained performance, a tour de force of comedic concision in a movie bloated by increasingly surreal developments.”–Nathan Lee, The New York Times (contemporaneous)