The first time I saw a picture from Freaks (1932), it was in a book called Midnight Movies by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). I had heard of it, of course. In fact, I saw ads for it in my local newspaper every weekend for years. But it was rated R, and I was a kid – and I’m pretty sure I was in bed by the time they were screening it on any given Saturday night (it was a “midnight movie”, after all).
I loved to read, and I loved watching movies, so whenever I was in a bookstore I would flip though books about movies – especially ones that looked like they might be scary. Midnight Movies seemed to fit the bill. There weren’t a lot of pictures in it, but there were enough to give me the idea that these were some pretty strange and possibly unsettling movies. A lot of them creeped me out, to be honest. And the picture from Freaks was no exception. It’s the somewhat famous one of director Todd Browning posing with his cast. Really, there was nothing particularly disturbing about it. I suppose I had just never seen anything like it at the time. I also knew nothing about the film, so my mind raced with all of the possible atrocities that it might contain. I should have probably been attributing them to another movie in the book, Pink Flamingos (1972) – but that’s an other story.
The photograph from Freaks stuck out in my mind long after I returned the book to its shelf and got on with my life. Years later, Freaks was available to rent on VHS, but I couldn’t bring myself to to do it. I was still unnerved by the memory of the picture in Midnight Movies. It was only while studying film at university, that I finally decided to give it a chance. I needed a topic for an essay, so I pitched the professor on the idea of an examination of Todd Browning’s films. The professor looked at me, skeptically, and said “What can you get hold of besides Freaks?”
In that moment, I had a realization that there were people out there who were obsessed with this movie. It was a genuine cult film featured in books like Midnight Movies, after all. I had a sudden urge to tell the professor that I had never even seen the film, but instead I just listed the titles that I’d been able to rent at Movie Village: “Dracula (1931), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936), and Freaks (1932).”
The professor looked relieved. “Okay,” he said.
I guess he really didn’t want to read a ten page love letter to Freaks. It made me wonder all the more what I was getting myself into.
Long story short, I loved the film. And the research I did into Todd Browning revealed a man who had run away to join the circus when he was young, and the so called “freaks” were his actual friends from those days. This movie had been Browning’s dream project. He was not a sleazy exploitation guy painting the “freaks” as the monsters (not that there’s anything wrong with sleazy exploitation guys). Browning portrayed his friends as sympathetic people who were being victimized by the able bodied villains of the movie – the good-looking, so called “normal” people were in fact the real monsters. I liked the movie so much that I wound up buying a copy on VHS, then later upgrading to a DVD. I also bought a Freaks t-shirt which I saw displayed in the window of a store called Freaks while walking around New York City a few years back. The owners of the store told me that they had never seen the movie, but felt compelled to sell the shirt because it had the name of their store on it. I urged them to see the movie.
I also first read about the movie She Freak (1967) in a book, although not until I was a university student. It was apparently an unofficial remake of Freaks, or, as James O’Neill put it in Terror On Tape, a “tawdry Freaks rip-off”. It was written and produced by David F. Friedman, who is perhaps most famous as the former producing partner of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Together they made the iconic gore films Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1965), as well as a few nudie-cuties such as Nature’s Playmates (1962) and Boin-n-g (1963).
Clearly, I had to see She Freak. I’m sure it goes without saying that it is not as good as Freaks. Neither Dave Friedman, nor his directors, had the same life-experience or passions as Todd Browning. Although, Friedman was apparently a legitimate carnival guy, or carnie. He’s been known to talk about the similarities between being an exploitation filmmaker and a carnival promoter. Friedman also claims that he was a huge fan of the original Freaks.
One major difference between Browning’s film and this one, is that there are basically no actual “freaks” in She Freak. We do see a few carnival performers (such as Madame Lee, a snake charmer), but no one like Prince Randian The Living Torso in Freaks. 3′ 11″ Felix Silla plays Shorty in She Freak. He is probably best known as Cousin Itt from The Addams Family (1964–1966). Basically, Friedman and his two directors (Byron Mabe & Donn Davison) avoid showing us the “freaks” as much as possible. At the very end of the movie, we finally see what passes for “freaks” in She Freak, and they are all creations of make up artist Harry Thomas – and none of them are very extreme (except perhaps the titular character).
What I really love about movies like She Freak, is that they provide us with a window into a specific time and place. In this particular case, we are presented with what some have claimed is the most realistic portrayal of carnie life ever captured on film. The footage that Friedman and crew got of the carnival itself is quite extraordinary – and I believe that it has been licensed and used by other filmmakers.
Some would call She Freak (1967) a bad movie, but I enjoy watching Claire Brennen, as our heroine Jade Cochran, go on her strange personal journey. She starts out as a beautiful and relatively sympathetic waitress at a dead end diner in the middle of nowhere. She longs for a better life, and when a carnival comes to town she sees it as possible way out. But the deeper she goes into this strange new world world of carnies and “freaks”, the more our view of her begins to change. And just like the movie that inspired it, She Freak reveals that the monsters are not the ones who look ugly or different, but rather the ones who look good but are inhuman, and treat others cruelly, with callous indifference.
She Freak (1967) is one of those iconic examples of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that must be seen by all connoisseurs of strange cinema. I used to see pictures from it in old books about drive-in movies and exploitation films that made me long to see the film. Last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn was my third time sitting through it, and I think I enjoyed it more than ever. The Something Weird Video DVD commentary track featuring David F. Friedman is in some ways more entertaining than the movie itself, and well worth the price of admission. Anyone with an interest in low budget filmmaking, or the history of unusual cinema, should definitely check it out.