Bring on the Singing Weirdos: Freaked


“A thinking man’s stupid comedy.” – Freaked tagline

Freaked is a case study of studio executives interfering with a decent idea.

Once an unknown VHS sitting on a video shelf in a small Central Florida store next to Tank Girl (1995) in a section of “Oddball Gen-X Comedies,” the 1993 comedy Freaked (which underwent several name changes because of several trademarks held by the rights holders of Freaks) finally made the transition to DVD in 2005 thanks to adamant cult fans and on-line petitions, the same which encouraged the eventual release of Monster Squad (1987) and the entirety of the short-lived television series, Freaks and Geeks (1999). Directors Alex Winter (better known as Bill S. Preston, Esq. of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Tom Sterns who share writing credits with Tim Burns, were film school classmates at New York University. Judging by the stop-motion animation shorts included on the DVD extras, the duo found a niche in strange comedies like these. Prior to Freaked, which was originally intended as a low-budget horror vehicle for the Butthole Surfers called Hideous Mutant Freakz before being optioned (and consequently, re-written) by 20th Century Fox, Winter and Stearns directed a short-lived variety show for Mtv in the early 90s called Idiot Box, which was based on similar absurdist humor and slapstick comedy.

Alex Winter takes the lead role as arrogant pretty boy actor Ricky Coogan, who’s been “chosen” (read: bribed) to be the celebrity spokesman for the Everything Except Shoes (EES) Company’s toxic fertilizer, Zygrot-27. William Stadtler, who brilliantly played the Grim Reaper alongside Winter and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, perfectly portrays the sleazy head (and stockholder puppeteer) of EES, Dick Brain. While Ricky is in Santa Flan–“named for the patron saint of creamy desserts”–with his chauvinist friend Ernie (Michael Stayanov who audiences might better recognize as eldest brother Tony from the NBC sitcom Blossom) to promote the product, they ironically befriend Julie (Megan Ward), an idealistic but temperamental environmentalist protester while trying to distract a crowd of protesters. Joining in their escape, she convinces them to stop at Freekland, which is much more than the typical roadside freakshow attraction. Owner Elijah C. Skuggs, played by a well-tanned Randy Quaid, is a parody of Dr. Moreau, except that he’s not fusing mismatched species with a needle and thread. His distortion magic is Zygrot-27. But, while his freakish creations are something of a hobby to his point, Skuggs has a dastardly plan to use the fertilizer to make the ultimate freak!

The story is told in flashback. Coogan narrates to talk show host Skye Daley (Brooke Shields) his “awful ordeal” of how Skuggs turned he and his friends into hideous mutant freaks! Cast into the shadows the Freekland underworld, the newly distorted newcomers are introduced to Skuggs’ other creations, including Ortiz the Dogboy (Reeves in an uncredited role for which he was paid $1 million), The Eternal Flame (Lee Arenberg), Sockhead (Bobcat Goldwaith), The Bearded Lady (Mr. T), the Worm, Zippy the Pinhead, Nosey, Cowboy and Frogman. Shallow Coogan, unwilling to accept life as a freak despite the others’ suggestion that it’s not so bad once you get used to it, he encourages mutiny against Skuggs and proposes they search for an antidote.

Freaked marks the directing duo’s first major film production, but in the end, it wasn’t well-received by test audiences and Winter, Stearns and Burns, as humorously recounted in the DVD commentary, had to bend to a lot of the Studio’s demands in order to even get the movie made. Joe Roth, who was the original producer at Fox, was fired afterwards (for “making too many weird movies” according to Winter) and was subsequently replaced with Peter Chernin who didn’t like the idea of basically two inexperienced directors being given $12 million to make a movie, which meant that not only was the special effects budget significantly cut (and a demo recorded by Iggy Pop for the closing credits eliminated altogether), but the advertising budget was almost non-existent. Opening on only two screens in the United States, it only grossed around $6,000 dollars and less than $30,000 when released to video.

But in retrospect, the movie really isn’t that weird, or at least not in the bizarre surrealistic sense, although, audiences might want to skip the seizure-inducing opening credits. Special effects artist Screaming Mad George’s strobe light and melted claymation morphing cacophony–something that looks to channel the old commercials of Twizzler, Caramello and Bubbletape as well as Peter Gabriel music videos on mescaline–are accompanied by Henry Rollins and Blind Idiot God’s raging “Freaked.” Nor is the movie any kind of extreme in its crudeness, although the script was toned down to satisfy the censors of the MPAA.

Thus, what was hindered by the studio and rejected by test audiences naturally found a strong cult following.

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