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