Thursday, March 21, 2013

Movie Review: SHE FREAK

1967, Something Weird #ID6062SWDVD, DD-1.0/MA/+, $24.95, 82m 55s, DVD-A

By John Charles
Originally published in slightly different form in Video Watchdog #66

A plodding, low-rent variation on Tod Browning's FREAKS, SHE FREAK is a nice time capsule of late '60s carnival life, but hasn't much bite as a thriller and far too few exploitation elements to keep aficionados engaged. Tired of fending off the advances of her sleazebag boss (Claude Earl Jones, billed as "Claude Smith"), greasy spoon waitress Jade Cochran (Claire Brennan) figures she can better her lot in life by getting a job with a carnival passing through the area. She sets about ingratiating herself with prosperous freak show proprietor Steve St. John (DELIVERANCE's Bill McKinney, in his film debut), while also making time with handsome ride operator Blackie (Lee Raymond). Jade and Steve are soon married but the girl's continued liaisons with Blackie have been observed by Shorty (Felix Silla), who eventually alerts his boss, setting the stage for murder and mutilation.

Flatly directed by Byron Mabe (A SMELL OF HONEY, A SWALLOW OF BRINE) and painfully padded to reach feature length (practically every scene drags on well after the necessary elements have been conveyed), SHE FREAK is a tepid tease of a film and barely even rates as horror. No freaks appear until the very end of the picture, via a trite re-staging of FREAKS' climax that is distinctly underwhelming, save for some amusingly bizarre Harry Thomas make-up. Ben Moore (who played the gleefully psychotic "Lester" in TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!) appears briefly as an advance man for the show and William Bagdad also pops up as the improbably named "Pretty-Boy."

We haven't seen Something Weird's tape version but the master used for the mid-80s Magnum Entertainment (US) and VEC (Canada) releases of SHE FREAK certainly doesn't compare to how terrific the film looks here. The image is detailed and sharp, with attractive hues, and the source material looks fresh out of the lab; the sound is flat and hissy but coherent. Writer/Producer David F. Friedman (who appears as a talker in the $65,000 movie and is an old-time carny man himself) and Something Weird's Mike Vraney provide a commentary track, reporting that some footage from the film (showing the erection of the carnival and some wonderfully garish banners) has been sold to a number of TV programs over the years; how Friedman had to create the freaks for his movie because California had a law in place by this point forbidding the exploitation of human deformities; that the producer originally wanted Angelo Rossitto (who appeared in the Browning film) for the role of Shorty but had to go with Silla because Rossitto was already committed to another project; co-star Lee Raymond was a United Airlines captain who dabbled in movies as a hobby, both in-front of and behind the camera; star Claire Brennan ran a ladies clothing store chain called Sassy Pants at the time and died of cancer in her 40s; and that fellow exploiteer Donn Davison stole a print of the movie and distributed it in the South during the early 70s (as ASYLUM OF THE INSANE, with some unrelated 3-D footage tacked on) without Friedman finding out until years later. A good portion of the conversation is directed towards other subjects, most memorably how a genuine human mummy that Dan Sonney owned somehow ended up hanging in the Tunnel of Love attraction at a Long Beach amusement park! Extras include a worn and blurry theatrical trailer (3m 11s), a gallery of ad mattes from various Friedman projects, and some pretty amazing "Side Show Shorts." The 8m 28s section (which carries the SWV watermark) consists of B&W carnival footage from the 1930s (featuring talkers pitching human and animal oddities) and very awkwardly staged interviews with Siamese twins Violet & Daisy Hilton (who also appeared in FREAKS and were later given their own starring vehicle, CHAINED FOR LIFE) and Margaret & Mary Gibb.

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