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)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: FREAKED (1993)”

  1. I’m fairly certain the reason so many bizarre movie scripts got greenlit in the early 1990s was the unexpected success of “Twin Peaks,” which (wrongly, it turned out) convinced Hollywood that maybe there was money in weird. It didn’t hurt the Alex Winter had some success with the off-the-wall Bill & Ted movies, either. I caught the end of this one on HBO in the mid 1990s and was intrigued, but never saw the whole thing (an oversight I mean to rectify soon).

    1. Well, I don’t know that I entirely agree with that. “Twin Peaks” did point to a promise of weirder stuff, but the stuff that followed it immediately (“Wild Palms,” the second season of “Twin Peaks”) failed miserably. The introduction of surreality did eventually find its way into mainstream television much later, as you can see in series like “Lost.”

      I think that movies like this were greenlit more for a general excitement about “alternative” culture that was prevalent in the early ’90s. The comedy series “Portlandia” has honed in on this particular trend with a vicious intensity. “Freaked” also has a very strong MTV connection. This trend was also magnified by the rise of the direct-to-video market, which was in its embryo form at this time.

      At the same time, the idea of the “independent” studio was still in its infancy. Hard as it may be to believe now, there was a time when Miramax was still scrapping for, well, scraps. It was a time when almost anything was being thrown at the wall in the hope that some of it would stick.

      “Freaked” was one of those that did not stick, except in the brains of people like me, who it made a very big influence on. I love these bizarro ’90s movies, most likely because I was a teenager just waiting to be imprinted at the time.

    2. Well, I still contend that much of the stuff that got greenlit in the early 1990s was a direct result of the success of “Twin Peaks” (especially Rubin and Ed and The Dark Backward, the two examples you cite in your first paragraph, and I would add The Reflecting Skin to that list as well). However, now that I’ve actually watched it, I think Freaked may not be the best example of the wave of “Peaks”-inspired films. To me, this movie seems to come more out of the Airplane/Naked Gun school of continuity-free gag-a-minute school of comedy than the traditions of surrealism or absurd humor.

  2. This movie is great. Gibby Haines from Butthole Surfers (a.k.a. one of the best bands ever) co-wrote the original version of the script. I wish they could have made that. It was supposed to be much darker and more offensive. Screaming Mad George’s effects are always fantastic. And it’s got great lines like this, “Twelve milkmen are technically possible. Thirteen is silly.”

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