Okay, so it’s not Herschell Gordon Lewis — but 1967’s She Freak is pretty close, at least in terms of style and tone (if not gore content — the only blood on display here is in a very brief screwdriver-through-the-hand moment that frankly isn’t even nauseating) , and why shouldn’t it be? After all, it’s the “brain”child of HGL’s old producing partner, the legendary David F. Friedman, and definitely has a Lewis-like bizarre-on-a-budget sensibility. Oh, and it’s also available on DVD from Something Weird Video (nice full-frame transfer, acceptable mono sound, extras include a feature-length Friedman commentary, a gallery of exploitation art, some SWV trailers, a couple of tangentially-related shorts, etc.), the label that handles more or less all of our guy Herschell’s stuff, so — yeah, there are some similarities, to be sure.
Unfortunately, it’s even closer to Tod Browning’s seminal exploitation classic Freaks — not that there’s anything wrong with Freaks, mind you, and if you’re gonna rip something off I suppose you might as well rip off one of the all-time greats, but anyway, read on and my use of the term “unfortunately” will, hopefully, make sense. In point of fact, to call She Freak a rip-off is probably being a little too harsh, since even though it pretty much tells the exact same story as Freaks, it does so from the point of view of the gold-digging damsel rather than her victim. So maybe it’s more a case of an inverse carbon-copy. Which still means it’s nothing too earth-shatteringly original, but I digress.
Our story here revolves around one Jade Cochran (Claire Brennen, who bears a rather uncanny resemblance to latter-day Russ Meyer starlet Pandora Peaks minus the surgical — uhhhmmm — “enhancements”), a simple country girl who commits the cardinal exploitation movie sin of wanting something better out of life (of all the nerve!), and isn’t afraid to step on a few toes on her climb to what passes for “the top” in her admittedly limited worldview. At the outset of our little shot-around-Bakersfield-for-$65,000 morality play, Jade’s slinging hash as a waitress at the greasiest of greasy-spoon diners, but when an advance man for a traveling carnival comes though one day, she has the temerity to ask him if there’s any work for a gal with no experience,no skills, no education, but a pretty nice pair of legs in his merry troupe. He tells her to stop by and see the owner of the show after they get the tents set up, she tells her lecherous married creep of a boss to go to shove it (granted, after he fires her first and tells her she’s headed straight to hell — he’s a real charmer, this guy) and the next day she shows up at the box office and quickly finds herself employed — as a waitress (again) at the carnival snack truck. Step one on the road to world domination achieved, I guess.
It’s not long, though, before our gal Jade really does start her hardscrabble climb up the carnival ladder. First she gets in good with a gal named “Moon” Mullins (Lynn Courtney), the closest thing to a stripper the show employs. “Moon” makes Jade the kindly offer of letting her shack up with her in her motel room while she’s in town, and before you know it Jade’s pestering her for the names of any single men with potential attached to the show. Jade’s already taken a liking to a fella named Blackie Fleming (Lee Raymond), who runs the Ferris wheel, but “Moon” lets her know there’s no future in getting mixed up with lowly ride operators and suggests that Jade should set her sights on Steve St. John (Bill McKinney), the well-to-do widower who owns the freak show — why, he’s even got a house in Tampa!
Jade takes her gal-pal up on her advice and soon begins courting her prey over coffee and donuts every morning at the snack truck. Cut to a montage of rather listless-looking dates than play out sans dialogue and show our supposed lovebirds going out to dinner, riding around town in his car, and walking around the carnival a whole hell of a lot (when you add in all the extraneous footage of carnival set-up and tear-down activities also included in this flick — hey, Friedman had an “in” with a carny operator and wanted to get his money’s worth — you begin to see why even at a slim 83 minutes plenty of people refer to it as being “padded”) and presto!, before you know it,Ms. Cochran is now Mrs. St. John.
There are, however, a couple of pesky problems she can’t seem to run away from. One is the freaks themselves. We never actually see any of them (until the very end, and I’m sorry to report there’s not a real “freak” in the bunch — they’re all extras in makeup and cheap prosthetics), apart from a garden-variety midget named — amazingly enough — Shorty (Felix Silla), who seems to have a penchant for following his boss’s new lady-love around, but she makes it clear that she can’t stand the sight of them and that they creep her the hell out. Steve indulges in some painfully wooden dialogue about how they’re his friends, they’re people just like you and me, he’s not exploiting them he’s giving them a chance, etc., but it’s no use. She just doesn’t care for their kind.
Her second (and larger) problem, though, his Blackie. He gives it to Jade rough-and-ready and that’s just how she likes it. In fact, she can’t seem to keep away from the guy. One night the always-underfoot Shorty spies her sneaking out of Blackie’s trailer, and when he tells his best-friend/boss about it, all he gets is a slap in the fact for his trouble. Yes, it appears as though Steve’s truly got rose-tinted glasses on when it comes to looking at his new bride, but when he gets “home” to their motel room (we never do get to see that palatial Tampa estate) and finds Blackie on his way out the door and Jade with a big smile on her face, he knows he’s been had. A fight ensues, Steve gets stabbed, Jade stands above him without lifting a finger to help and then turns her back on him as he dies, Blackie flees into the night, is caught by the cops, confesses, and goes to jail —and now the freak show is Jade’s property, free and clear.
For the next five minutes or so we see Jade in her new incarnation as super-bitch of the midway — she drives her big Cadillac around recklessly, tells “Moon” to take a hike, spends a lot of time counting her money — and fires poor old Shorty. Which proves, of course, to be her undoing, as Shorty and his fellow losers in the genetic lottery surround her as she’s getting into her car one night, brandishing knives and torches one and all, close ranks around her terrified and convulsing body, and move in for — well, not the kill. To be honest, I have no idea exactly what they do to her, but she ends up like this —
And needless to say, for a gal that got to where she is on her looks, that’s gotta be a career-killer. To complete the homage (how’s that for being polite about it?) to Browning’s earlier film, the whole story is presented between two framing sequences featuring a carnival barker who tells his audience of gasping onlookers (and us) at the beginning that there are two kinds of freaks, those created by God and those made by man , and then we return to hear the end of his spiel before the big “reveal” finale showing us Jade as she is today (or as she was in 1967, at any rate). All in all it’s not a half-bad little time-waster as far as completely derivative and frankly unnecessary “uncredited remakes” go, and Brennen, who was actually a pretty good actress in her day (sadly, she passed away at a fairly early age from cancer in 1977) turns in a deliciously slow-burn-sinister starring turn as Jade that she clearly relishes every second of, but if you’ve seen Freaks then you’ve seen this done a)before, b)better, and c) with real circus “freak” performers.
Still, since the entire exploitation movie business was literally born as a traveling roadshow racket molded on the carny model, it’s nice to see drive-in fare that openly pays tribute to its roots like this one does. And I really shouldn’t do this, but — since exploitation’s the name of the game here, I think it only fitting that I end this whole thing by repeating a particularly salacious rumor that’s been circulating around the internet for some time now : apparently it was revealed shortly after Brennen’s death that she had secretly been seeing Felix “Shorty” Silla on the side for nine years and even bore his child! I have no idea if this is true or just another tinseltown tall tale, but it seems strangely natural that a movie like this would give birth to such a, well — freakish legend, and just think : if She Freak itself were half as interesting as this bit of gossip, it would definitely be remembered as an all-time classic!