I’m a big fan of Turner Classic Movies’ Friday night “Underground Classics”. I’ve seen lots of interesting stuff there — a Japanese horror movie based on Buddhist concepts of hell, for instance, and William Shatner acting in Esperanto — but last Friday’s offering was really something: Freaked, made in 1993 by Alex Winter.
Maybe you’re asking “Who the frack is Alex Winter?”. Well, you recall Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? The guy who isn’t Keanu Reeves is Alex Winter. Winter played a number of parts in the 1980s and ’90s, but his real interests lay in writing and directing. He was a child actor, later involved with television comedy like MTV’s The Idiot Box, director of music videos for groups like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and creator of the CGI version of Tony the Tiger. He directed Fever in 1999, has a documentary about Napster called Downloaded that may be released this year, and has a few acting jobs coming up including Bill and Ted 3.
Idiot Box was an ensemble comedy skit program that only ran six episodes before MTV shut it down because of budget problems or because Winter and his team left when they got the money to do a movie — accounts differ. Somehow, Winter and the other Idiot Box creators — Tom Stern and Tim Burns — got $12 Million from Fox to do a movie about people turning into freaks. Originally it was going to be a vehicle for the Red Hot Chili Peppers but instead became an Idiot Box big screen production.
The plot: an ex-child star is hired by a chemical company to rescue the image of a fertilizer that has an evil reputation. So the star, played by ex-child actor Winter, flies to South America along with his blonde assistant and best friend who is trying to make time with said assistant. The team discovers that the fertilizer is indeed evil and turns people into freaks. A mad sideshow owner (played by Randy Quaid) wants to make more and bigger freaks because… because… he wants a really big show. Or something. Meanwhile, the chemical corporation is trying to mutate a race of compliant workers. Or a huge army. Or something. Our hero foils the dastardly plot(s). That’s it, but the entire story is a farce, one absurd gag after another — think Airplane crossed with one of Peter Jackson’s early movies. Or a big budget Troma production. Oh, did I mention that our hero and his friends are mutated into freaks and have to play most of the movie wearing foam rubber appliances?
The first clue that this is going to be an interesting movie is the great opening credits sequence by David Daniels (who also did the titles for The Idiot Box). Daniels works with claymation. Sometimes he heats the clay and slowly presses it with heavy glass, filming it as it melts. The music under the credits is by Henry Rollins and Blind Idiot God. “Hideous Mutant Freekz” was also the movie’s original title.
The credits introduce the amazing cast. Besides Quaid, Winter, and the Idiot Box crew, there are Brooke Shields, Morgan Fairchild, William Sadler, Megan Ward, Mr. T (!), Lee Arenberg, Bobcat Goldthwaite, and an uncredited Keanu Reeves. Bud Melman of Letterman fame plays the President of the United States! Sam Raimi has a bit part. You can spend a lot of time identifying the stars just as you do in a John Waters film. (I bet John Waters likes Freaked.)
Let me just describe one scene: one of the freaks, played or voiced by Bobcat Goldthwaite, has a sock puppet head. He is shot by the mutant guards — giant Rastafarian eyeballs with machine gun pupils — and collapses to the ground. The other freaks surround the dying sock puppet head guy and one of them removes the sock to reveal a Senor Wences style talking hand that gives a dying speech, finally coughing up blood from the mouth space between thumb and forefinger.
Well, I thought it was funny.
Some say that this is Randy Quaid’s finest comic performance ever but don’t let that keep you away. Incidentally, Oliver Reed was originally cast for Quaid’s role but the studio turned him down because of a clause in his contract that said they couldn’t tell him not to drink. George C. Scott was rejected for the same reason. “We just kept going after drunks,” says Winter but they wound up with Quaid and later felt fortunate in their choice.
Mr. T got tired of his role as a bearded lady and
about a week before he was done he just had too much cross-dressing. He’s a pretty macho guy and was a really good sport until he wasn’t. And the way he wasn’t was that he disappeared. He didn’t have a fight with any of us, he just vanished.
So some scenes have a stand-in. Lee Arenberg had a dead-on Mr. T imitation so he did the audio dubs.
There are lots of film-industry gags. Brooke Shields makes a crack about the sequel to Blue Lagoon that’s funny, there’s a line about Ishtar that isn’t. (NB: A movie like this should not snark about other films’ lack of box office. Hit the big flops for lack of artistry or vision, not for their lack of ticket sales.)
Freaked was a great hit at the Toronto International Film Festival and got excellent reviews. But the execs who originally greenlighted the project had left Fox and the new execs didn’t like it so the movie opened on two screens and then shut down after taking in less than $30000. The new execs withdrew the movie; they were willing to take an $11.97 Million loss rather than add this flick to Fox’s hits. Or, perhaps, rather than allow their predecessors a hit.
For a while, prints of Freaked showed up here and there but the only known extant print was rescued from a midwest movie theatre last year. Fox claims there aren’t any. A version went to DVD in the 1990s and sold out every copy. In 2005 a double-disc DVD with a ton of extras was released and now that, too, is a collectible. You can no longer view the entire movie on YouTube. (You can see some scenes in this montage.) Someday, someone will re-issue the DVD. Until then, keep watching TCM.