She Freak (1967)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 28, 2010  | 
Something Weird Video (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 1.0. 83 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: David F Friedman
Starring: Claire Brennen, Lee Raymond, Lynn Courtney, Bill McKinney
Screenplay: Byron Mabe
Country: USA
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If you're a fan of exploitation cinema and you try telling me that the title She Freak holds no allure for you, then I'd be wondering what kind of exploitation fan you actually were. She Freak is exploitation mogul David F Friedman's loving remake of/homage (depending on how you look at it) to Tod Browning's 1932 career-damaging Freaks, a film that used real performers (midgets, microcephalic "pinheads", Siamese twins and a range of other unfortunates: Prince Randian: "The Living Torso", Johnny Eck: "The Half Boy", Koo-Koo: "The Bird Girl" to name but a few) garnered from circus sideshows. Appalled audiences in the 1930s stayed away in droves from this crassly exploitative revenge story curio, but eventually it found an audience, many years after Browning's career had swirled down the spout.

That's right folks, it was the exploitation crowd who exhumed this long reviled film, and Friedman (himself an ex-carny barker, appropriately enough), ever on the look out for a quick buck, re-tooled the film for the sensibilities of a sixties drive-in market. After all, the 35 years since the original release of the film had seen it having a revival of sorts in the late 1940s, courtesy of Dwain Esper (who alternately billed it as either Forbidden Love, or the even more lurid Nature's Mistakes), and it was starting to gain a following of sorts through its being placed on midnight movie double bills with films as diverse as The Terror of Tiny Town, and later on Night of the Living Dead and Pink Flamingos. I myself saw it as part of a double bill mystifyingly enough with Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Sydney's late and much lamented Encore Cinema – and it was a packed house. Curiosity, morbid or otherwise, will get people watching films with a certain notoriety, and Friedman was well aware of this, having already bombarded audiences with the likes of Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, A Smell of Honey…A Swallow of Brine, Scum of the Earth and The Defilers. In other words, along with director Herschell Gordon Lewis he had invented the splatter film, and perhaps even more distressingly for the general public, the "Roughie".

So anyway, by 1967 it was actually illegal in the US for who had previously been deemed "freaks" (or "human oddities", in carny talk) to make money from being put on display – effectively robbing many of them of any chance of making a living, while at the same time trying admirably enough to give them back their dignity. Friedman still tried to get Johnny Eck to appear in the film, but to no avail – Eck had been badly burned (in a financial sense) by an unscrupulous agent while making Freaks, and wanted no more of the movie industry, having hardly ever seen dollar one of what he was owed. So where did that leave Friedman in terms of casting his film, also set in a circus sideshow? Enter: make-up artist Harry Thomas, and if you've ever seen his work in Killers From Space or on the female lead of Frankenstein's Daughter, you'll know exactly the level of technical competence to expect. I mean, he'd worked on some Ed Wood Jr films – need I say more? Nevertheless, Friedman is very complimentary about his work on the commentary track. It's kinda neat to look at from a kitsch perspective, but it's not exactly Rick Baker or Tom Savini…

The framing narrative is simple, and basically the same as Browning's film – after we get to see the carnival during the opening credits, and the "freaks" that the audience are legally allowed to see, it's pointed out the illegality of holding a "traditional" freak show by one of the carnies who tells a disappointed and eager rube that they can't have geeks in the act any more because of John Q Law, but that they have something "even better" out back. The barker (played by Friedman himself, and given his experience in the role prior to film production (afterwards, too), who would be better equipped to play the character?) tells us that the thing we initially aren't able to see is a freak either made by God, or by Man – the audience in the film, made up of walk-in folks paid five bucks a day, react with horror as we dissolve into the past, and action proper of the film begins.

Jade (Claire Brennen, an actress who sadly passed away from cancer only a year after the film wrapped) is a dissatisfied worker at a greasy spoon in the town the carnival is passing through. She's fed up with her lot in life, wanting something more interesting, more exotic, more…different from the humdrum existence she sees herself being trapped in. From the outset, she's not the most likeable character you're ever likely to come across – one more viper-like harpy in Friedman's catalogue of such skanky characters, reminiscent of the hard-boiled vixens of the low-rent Poverty Row noir flicks of the 40s and 50s; always wanting more and always with an eye for the main chance.

And that chance comes in the form of Bob Thomas, a travelling circus advance man who Jade puts the hard word on for a job. Thomas actively discourages Jade from such ideas, but she's adamant, enough so that she gets herself fired from her waitressing job by her God-fearin' boss – he regards her as a "carnival tramp" just minutes after trying to talk his way into her pants, and tells her to leave before she infects any of his non-existent customers with a disease – a somewhat hyperbolic reaction, but there you go. She figures that the only way out of her present situation is up, and leaves his employ, gladly.

The circus comes to town, and Jade leaves the dreary world of waitressing behind to join the circus and reach the heady, dizzying highs of becoming…a waitress. It's at this point that one of the few flaws of the film becomes apparent – long montages of what is basically padding; seemingly endless shots of people setting up the circus, visiting the circus and going on rides, all without dialogue. Even when Jade gets employed there's no sound during the conversation with her new employer except for the chintzy score and a bit of diegetic background noise. She quickly fits in, gaining the approbation of the other carnies, making fast friends with Moon, the side-show's exotic dancer (Lynn Courtney, a one-shot exploitation blonde bombshell), and receiving the dubious attentions of Blackie, the Ferris wheel attendant (and Chris Isaak lookalike – and in real life, a United Airlines pilot!) who you can just tell is going to be trouble.     

Equally troublesome will be Jade's disgust at the freaks, and considering that we're talking about a magician, a snake handler and a sword swallower, that's probably a little bit of an exaggerated response – but it also gives you an idea of where the plot may be going to lead us. But then she's also causing her own trouble by getting her new roomie Moon to word her up on the most eligible bachelors on the lot, wanting to snag the richest one for herself – Steve St John, the manager of the sideshow. Blackie has other ideas, wanting our Southern-fried darlin' for himself (if only he knew what he was getting himself into…), and proving his propensity for violence by ramming a screwdriver through the hand of a rival, the I'm assuming ironically named Pretty Boy.

Jade's palm is read by the carnival's fortune teller, and this is the point where alarm bells really oughtta be ringing for her as the prognosis is not a positive one. She misinterprets her own future, but by the end of the film, the psychic's words will come to have a whole other meaning. As far as Jade's concerned, life is going swimmingly and all is to plan. However, this is an exploitation film from one of the genre's more notorious producers – with the faux morality straight out of an issue of EC's glorious Tales From The Crypt comic (a positive "moral" message wrapped inside something very nasty indeed), it's as clear as the nose on your face that Jade is not going to be ending this film riding off into the sunset all smiles and happiness. As playwright Tom Stoppard once said about revenge tragedies: "The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily" – so strap yourself in for a very bumpy ride – just like Blackie's Ferris wheel, there'll be shrieks and laughs and the potential for something unforeseen and nasty before She Freak stops spinning.   

Y'see, while Jade is playing the coquette with Steve for his cash, she also wants some lovin' from bad boy Blackie, and starts knockin' boots with the big lug in an effort to get the best of both worlds. Ultimately, though, she's going to have to make a choice, as you can't be playing both ends against the other forever, especially in such an insular community as that of the carnies, as the carnival itself has since hauled stakes and moved towns – Jade has really burnt those proverbial bridges behind her by this point, and those arsonist tendencies towards self-preservation and an escape route both literal and metaphorical are coming home to roost, mainly in the diminutive form of Shorty, the unimaginatively nicknamed sideshow midget (played by Felix Silla, who you might better remember from the early 80s TV show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century – he played Buck's vertically challenged robotic sidekick Twiki), who sees her leaving Blackie's trailer after what must have been some serious hoochie-koo, given the state of her. And she knows he saw her – something has got to give.

The sly little minx gets hitched to Steve, who despite exploiting people for their "talents" seems like a decent enough fella (the folks in Friedman's films are never 100% likeable – everyone's tainted by the corrupt society they live in – or they're so painfully naïve bordering on the imbecilic that we want them to learn the errors of their ways the hard way), and some of the other carnies maybe start to smell a rat…or maybe a gold-digger with a hidden agenda. And Jade wastes no time in starting to spend the poor sap's money – and she just loves the sight of all that long green. Wish you could say the same about the way she views her husband. Blackie's none-too-keen about the sight of her husband either, and it's not too long before he decides that something ought to be done to make Steve take a dirt nap and take Jade for his own. Jade, meanwhile, has decided illogically enough that Shorty needs to pay for her being found out to be a skanky ho, and there's that hard-nosed film noir morality coming back again. Questions of right and wrong are never as clear as they may seem, and as in Browning's Freaks, a person's appearance and their true self have absolutely nothing in common. If you're not salivating waiting for rough justice to be carried out by this point, then I reckon there might be something seriously wrong with you.

I really can't comment too much past this point, as the synopsis would simply turn spoileriffic, and in truth I've not gone past what's written on the back cover blurb, and as odd as it may sound, not even as far as the overly long trailer, just in a slightly more detailed fashion. The money shot is the real pay-off here, and the events leading up to it (the last 15 minutes of the film are a breathless, haywire race to the pretty gosh-darned crazy finish line) just help to add up to the goodness that is She Freak.

My only gripe with She Freak would be the time spent padding out the duration of the film with carnival set-ups and break-downs (including footage half-inched by later films due to its obviously authenticity given Friedman's desire to film a genuine carny film), and the strange sequences that would appear to be reasonably important, but have no dialogue to accompany them, falling back on the acting skills (ahem) of the cast to convey the story while being lulled into a torpor by the same piece of lounge jazz elevator muzak on the soundtrack. Oh, and Friedman's semi-constant use of carny-speak becomes a little intrusive (with the resultant translation for the audience of every term that's used) even if it does add an air of verite to the film – I guess you really do have to write about what you know, but at the same time, you can't treat your audience like the rubes getting fleeced at the carnival.
Sometimes this can be a problem with an SWV release, but here the picture, despite a slight softness of image, has few faults at all until the last reel, where some print damage is quite evident. Given the age of the film and its micro-budget, I'd say that nearly borders on the miraculous – aside from the occasional scene there's little in the way of speckle, grain, or artefacts, no real problems of any kind bar the occasional flicker come reel change time, with the attendant cigarette burn and a slight dip in the continuity with regard to the colour palette, which is rectified almost immediately. It's a full-frame 1.33:1 picture, so if you're watching She Freak on a wide-screen TV, big black bars down the side of the picture are in your immediate future.
Not exactly doing the Dolby Digital name proud, as there is an audible hiss that permeates the entirety of the mono soundtrack. Given the nature of the film, I was willing to take this with a grain of salt. That aside, the dialogue is occasionally a little muffled or echoey, but still audible and clear enough to be understood, and the instances of these faults are very few and far between.
Extra Features
Something Weird always deliver the goods in terms of Extras, and She Freak is no exception – the Extras might not always relate directly to the film (commentaries and "Making Of" featurettes and such), but they always link to the setting, the basic idea of the film, or have something to do with the work of the director, producer or stars of the film in question. Here we get the original trailer of the film, which you should probably leave until after the film to watch – no spoilers per se, but you get to see some things that I think should be viewed inside the film itself for the first time. There's a gallery of David F Friedman exploitation art – now normally I have no time for stills galleries, but the artwork on display here is the kind of lurid and excessive poster, pressbook, ad mat and newspaper ad art that I love from the Golden Age of the B film – talk about a hard sell! Most interesting to me was the archival 1930s footage from a genuine sideshow – some was silent, but most of the eight and a half minutes had sound as well. The footage has taken a bit of a beating from Father Time, but watching the barkers ply their trade was a piece of never-to-be-seen-again oddness from the twentieth century's fathers of exploitation. On top of that, there's an audio commentary from producer David F Friedman, and if you're a fan of exploitation film, you really ought to listen to the maestro talking about one of his favourite of his own films, moderated by one of the masterminds behind Something Weird Video, those fine purveyors of sleaze and trash, Mike Vraney. It's one of the better and more interesting commentary tracks I've listened to recently. 
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Beginning with a "true story" disclaimer and ending with a biblical quote while containing a whole mess of sinning and vengeance in between being based heavily on an earlier, slightly superior film, She Freak is nothing less than pure exploitation trash drive-in gold! If low budget flicks from the sixties don't scare you off, She Freak is a positive Garden of Delights for the true trash film fan - buy with confidence, friends. Unless of course you're simply waiting for the next moronic Hollywood big-budget superhero flick, in which case there's nothing for you here. Move along. You don't deserve such a fun and sleazy treat as She Freak.

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