Horror movie remakes are all
the rage these days, but there exists one genre classic I’m betting WON’T be
remade any time soon: Todd Browning’s notorious 1932 shocker FREAKS. Yet there
was an attempt at doing just that back in 1967. It’s SHE FREAK, from the
veteran exploiter David F. Friedman, and it’s pretty awful, amply demonstrating
why Browning’s film remains a stand-alone masterpiece.
FREAKS was a groundbreaker in its day and is still a unique concoction, a
dark, nihilistic account of a wealthy midget bilked out of his fortune by an
alluring trapeze artist, who ends up horrifically mutilated for her
transgressions by the midget’s fellow freaks. The film allegedly caused
audiences to run screaming from theaters back in 1932 due to its use of actual
human oddities in the cast. It also made an indelible impression on David F.
Friedman, an exploitation movie legend who produced H.G. Lewis’ infamous gore
trio--BLOOD FEAST, TWO THOUSAND MANIACS and COLOR ME BLOOD RED--among many, many
other micro-budget epics.
SHE FREAK, produced and scripted (and partially
directed) by Friedman, was a thinly disguised remake of Todd Browning’s
classic. It was shot on location at two real-life carnivals and, in the absence
of actual freaks, featured bad makeup FX by Harry Thomas, known for crapola
classics like FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER, HOUSE ON BARE MOUNTAIN and several Ed
Wood-scripted flicks. SHE FREAK also marked the film debut of Bill McKinney in
the role of the sideshow owner, who’d go onto achieve fame (of a sort) as the
hillbilly rapist in DELIVERANCE.
BTW, SHE FREAK is, according to David Freidman, his
“favorite film”. He’s evidently very easy to please!
Jade Cochran is a gold-digging ho with her sights set on the wealthy Steven
St. John, who runs a carnival sideshow. Jade starts out working as a waitress
but soon moves into Steve’s inner circle--this does not, however, stop her from
romancing Blackie, the hunky Ferris wheel operator. Her behavior all the while
is closely monitored by Shorty, a sideshow midget.
Eventually Jade and Steve get married, much to Blackie’s consternation. He
confronts Steve outside a hotel one night and the two have it out; in the
scuffle Mr. St. John is killed, which works out well for jade, as she inherits
his sideshow and attendant wealth. One of the first things she does is fire
Shorty, which ticks off the latter’s fellow sideshow performers. Later that
night they come after Jade en masse, severely mutilating her and turning her
into a SHE FREAK!!!
SHE FREAK’S supporters tend to laud the fact that it was shot on location
at actual carnivals, and really captures the late-sixties “carny” atmosphere.
It certainly should, as it features much gratuitous documentary footage
of carnival life, which tends to drag--case in point: the opening montage, which
lasts a numbing three minutes. There are also lengthy shots of the heroine
walking, a shameless effort at padding the running time (something you’ll see in
many exploitation films of the sixties, whose makers evidently had difficulty
stretching their films to feature length).
This film’s director Byron Mabe apparently didn’t get along with
writer/producer David Friedman, and the two parted ways before the film was
finished, with Friedman completing it himself. Throughout, one can sense Mabe’s
disinterest, in the indifferent performances, somnambulant pacing and poor
technical qualities (shaky zooms, mismatched close-ups, etc.). There’s very
little here worth recommending, and the freaks, the film’s selling point, don’t
even show up until the final ten minutes, and then do very little. My advice?
Skip this clunker and see Todd Browning’s original FREAKS, cinematically still
the first and last word on the subject.
Director: Byron Mabe
Producer: David F. Friedman
Screenplay: David F. Friedman
Cinematography: Bill Troiano
Editing: Byron Mabe
Cast: Claire Brennen, Lee Raymond, Lynn Courtney, Bill McKinney, Claude Smith,
Ben Moore, Van Teen, Madame Lee, Marsha Drake, Felix Silla, William Bagdad,
Sandra Holcombe, David F. Friedman