Once you get a big hit, like Alex Winter did as Bill S. Preston, Esquire, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, studios start to let you do things. They trust you. But what happens when that trust is unceremoniously pulled out from under your feet? WInter’s directorial debut Freaked is the story of a egomaniacal former child star who is turned into a hideous monster through the liberal use of a toxic chemical from a major corporation’s products, courtesy of mad scientist/freak show operator Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid). It’s also a cautionary tale of what happens when a delightfully weird little film is, for one reason or another, completely submarined by its studio. Freaked never got the release it was promised, but in the years since it has cultivated its own tribe of ardent followers.
After the success of Bill and Ted, Alex Winter immediately set to work on The Idiot Box, an edgy sketch comedy show tailor-made for the irreverent MTV generation, where he collaborated with Tim Burns and Tom Stern. Although the show only lasted for six episodes, it created a partnership that would lead the three to come up with Freaked, then somewhat more imaginatively titled as Hideous Mutant Freekz. It was originally meant to be a wildly obscene ultra-violent horror film, but they struggled to find funding for their grotesque masterpiece – that is, until they made the decision to switch to comedy, and the incarnation of Freaked we’re familiar with was born. The new vision is part gross-out body horror (complete with imaginative creature design and makeup work), part surrealist comedy, and part surprisingly effective environmental satire about the evils of corporations.
Joe Roth from 20th Century Fox gave Alex Winter and Tom Stern a $12 million deal to make the film, though neither of them had any actual directing experience. In fact, the studio planned a wide release for Freaked, complete with action figures, comic books, and even a novelization. This is the kind of marketing plan you come up with when you have a ton of faith in the profitability of your product. In hindsight, it feels like the wrong strategy for an experimental, subversive film like Freaked. And in a lot of ways, it’s difficult not to see Freaked as a film that was set up to fail. Because it’s not a bad movie – just one that was poorly understood by its studio and mismanaged from the very beginning.
First, Joe Roth got the boot at 20th Century Fox, replaced by Peter Chernin. This is never a great sign for small-scale, creative projects, which are often the first to be shut down under new management. And Peter Chernin? Not a fan of Freaked. To be fair, under his leadership 20th Century Fox produced both Titanic and Avatar, so he might have had a nose for profitability, but he cut the legs out from under Freaked before it even had a chance. First, he cut the film’s post-production budget significantly, which had a massive impact on the quality of special effects. Then it was pulled from national release, its advertising budget cut to shreds. All told, Freaked ended up making a little less than $30,000 on a $13 million budget. Ouch.
But was Chernin right? Was this movie always doomed to failure, and by taking these steps he was protecting the company from further losses, or did he sabotage its chances at success?
Well, probably both. $13 million in 1993 for what was always going to be a niche product from a pair of untested directors feels like a pretty big roll of the dice, and it’s hard to gauge if the studio would have recouped the money it shelled out, let alone made a profit. But still, there’s something about Freaked. It’s a wild, loud, swing for the fences piece of absurdist cinema from two young, energetic directors who were clearly throwing every possible sight gag or off-handed quip that they could come up with at the wall just to see what would stick. Not all of the jokes land. Some are in poor taste, or feel dated and obvious. But the stuff that works, really works.
This is a film that features Bobcat Goldthwait as Sockhead, one of the freaks who is essentially just a sock puppet mounted on top of a headless human body. A member of the freak show is just a regular old hammer (he used to be a wrench, as we learn in a heartbreaking flashback, before being transformed by the evil Elijah C. Skuggs) and when they plan an escape that involves dressing up as milkmen, the hammer has on a tiny little milkman costume. It gives Randy Quaid the freedom to be possibly the weirdest he’s ever been on screen, which is no small feat. And Keanu Reeves even has a cameo as Ortiz the Dog Boy, the arrogant leader of the freaks.
Freaked has such incredible attention to detail, and it walks an intriguing line between dumb trash cinema and something clever and intentional and fresh. It doesn’t feel like any other movie. And somehow, against all odds, it found an audience. Without studio support, or even a wide release in theaters, people sought it out over the years, and have grown to appreciate what it has to offer. While it’s hard not to wonder what might have been if 20th Century Fox hadn’t buried its release, watching an oddball fanbase slowly amass around such a bizarre, creative film almost makes it worth it.