Alex Winter and Tom Stern‘s fantastically demented 1993 comedy Freaked is one of those rare films whose existence is nothing short of a miracle. It went into production as Hideous Mutant Freekz (also the title of the Parliament-Funkadelic theme tune that underscores the end credits), but the directors, who also wrote the script with Tim Burns, had the new title forced upon them by the inefficiently supportive execs at 20th Century Fox who green-lit the project thinking that Winter’s involvement was tantamount to getting the next chapter in the exciting time travelling adventures of Bill Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. That turned out to be the least of Freaked‘s behind-the-scenes troubles.
I’m old enough to remember seeing some B-roll production footage on some E! Channel show back in the early 90’s when it was still being referred to as Hideous Mutant Freekz, but a year or so later I was in a neighborhood supermarket when I found a young adult novelization of the film that bore the replacement title. The labor of Winter and Stern’s love was granted something approximating a theatrical release, of that I am sure. Studio suits screened it for preview audiences who were under the assumption they were about to check out another dumbass comedy to please the undemanding youth market and were horrified to find out that….GASP….they had a potential cult film on their hands. That’s not exactly the kind of truth you want to face when you have $12 million invested in this peculiar business endeavor.
As the old saying goes, Freaked wasn’t released…it escaped. It wasn’t until late-1994 when I finally received the opportunity to check Freaked out for myself during an after-school viewing on HBO. I laughed my ass off then, but the best part is that the film’s oddball, offbeat humor (honed to perfection by its creators through years of making short films and their lamented MTV comedy series The Idiot Box) holds up well after more than two decades since it was unveiled for the world to see. This is in spite of the fact that Freaked is very much a product of its time, from its spazzy, in-your-face visual style to the aggressively cool and catchy soundtrack featuring Henry Rollins and Butthole Surfers. Oddly enough, Winter and Stern first conceived of Freaked as a gruesome horror film starring the Surfers. I haven’t even mentioned yet the prominent roles both Brooke Shields and Mr. T play in this big screen madhouse. Whoops, I just did.
Had Freaked been made a decade earlier, it likely would have been treated the same way by whatever studio was unfortunate enough (from their perspective) to bankroll its creation. It was destined to be unloved by all but the true freaks and geeks who once spent their weekends running through the aisles of their local video store like a human pencil line on a restaurant place mat maze looking for the latest craziest flicks from all over the world and now plan their lives around the double feature picture shows at the New Beverly Cinema.
Cable airings and video rentals and sales helped keep Freaked alive and breathing as its cult following grew. Anchor Bay Entertainment acquired the rights to the film as part of a package of 20th Century Fox titles the studio had zero interest in further exploiting and released it on DVD for the first time in the summer of 2005 in a splashy two-disc set that contained a brutally honest and hilarious directors’ commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, two of Winter and Stern’s early short features (one of which I’ll include below) and best of all, a feature-length rehearsal version of the film performed by most of the cast (Shields and T are the most notable absentees) shot on videotape with the actors wearing nothing but their street clothes.
One of the most unusual things about Freaked is the uncredited casting of the one and only Keanu Reeves as Ortiz the Dog Boy, the charming leader of the Freaks. It’s difficult to recognize the future star of The Matrix and John Wick underneath the impressive mutant make-up created by a gifted effects team that included horror/sci-fi cinema vets Tony Gardner (Army of Darkness) and Screaming Mad George (Society), but Reeves is pretty easy to spot in the rehearsal footage. Say what you will about the man’s acting abilities, but his performance as Ortiz doesn’t require the stage fur and phony dog fangs to convince. Reeves is hilarious and clearly having a blast going way over the top with a hearty laugh that Errol Flynn would admire just as soon he stopped banging his latest teenage girlfriend.
There’s a video assembly of Reeves’ highlights from the Freaked rehearsal I’ve posted below. The Anchor Bay DVD is sadly out of print and copies are currently commanding high prices on the online auction market. It was released on Blu-ray in August 2013, and though it featured upgraded picture and sound quality it was completely devoid of supplements for some fucked-up unexplained reason. Maybe one day the rights will fall into the hands of a video distributor that actually gives a shit about respecting this bizarro laugh riot of an old school horror spoof. Until then you can order that Blu-ray HERE. If you manage to track down a copy of that OOP DVD, give the rehearsal version a watch just to see both a young Reeves and John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Winter’s Bone) in action.
Here’s Winter and Stern’s 1985 short film Squeal of Death, a film noir parody starring Winter that they made during their sophomore year at New York University. It was selected to be shown on an episode of USA Network’s 80’s series Night Flight, and after being seen by both an executive at Columbia Pictures and filmmaker Sam Raimi, Winter and Stern were on their way to Tinseltown to start their careers. Read more about it HERE.
Screw it. Here’s the Freaked theatrical trailer.