Grindhouse Classics : “She Freak”

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!

What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: Friday the 13th (dir. by Marcus Nispel)

Last night, Jeff and I watched the 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th.

Why Was I Watching It?

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing the 12 films that make up the Friday the 13th franchise.  This is the last installment so far and, appropriately enough, I’m reviewing it on Friday the 13th.  (No, that’s not just a coincidence.)

What’s It About?

It’s a reboot!  That’s right — forget about every other Friday the 13th film because, apparently, they never happened.  Instead of trying to figure out some new gimmick to try to get audiences to watch Jason Voorhees kill yet more teenagers, producer Michael Bay and director Marcus Nisepl have simply gone back to the beginning and started all over again.  (I think I saw something similar in an episode of Futurama once.)

Basically, this is the first four films all rolled into one.  The film starts with a young Jason Voorhees watching as his murderous mother (Nana Visitor) gets beheaded by a camp counselor.  30 years later, Jason (now played by Derek Mears) is living in the woods around Camp Crystal Lake.  A bunch of obnoxious campers come up to the Lake because they’re looking for a marijuana crop and Jason, being the culture warrior that he is, responds by killing all of them except for Whitney (played by Amanda Righetti), who he just kidnaps.

A month later, Whitney’s brother Clay (Jared Padalecki) arrives at Crystal Lake to search for his sister.  Upon arriving, he runs into yet another group of obnoxious campers who have decided to take a vacation up at Crystal Lake.   Jenna (Danielle Panabaker) agrees to help Clay look for Whitney and while the two of them are off searching, Jason shows up and starts killing everyone else. 

What Worked?

One reason that I’m using the What Lisa Watched Last Night format to review this film is because, to a large extent, it’s pointless to get all nitpicky while reviewing a film like the reboot of Friday the 13th.  This is not a film you watch because you’re looking to see something that’s going to redefine cinema.  This is a film you watch so that you can scream, laugh, and grab your boyfriend.  And, on all those fronts, Friday the 13th succeeds well enough.  Director Marcus Nispel obviously understands the slasher genre and he provides everything that we’ve come to expect from a film like this.

Also, I have to admit, I always scream at the end of the film even though I know what’s going to happen.

The victims are all very disposable and forgettable but Aaron Yoo is funny as the token stoner.

What Did Not Work?

With this film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Conan The Barbarian, Nispel shows that while he may understand how to make a genre film, he also doesn’t seem to be capable of adding anything new to them.  This isn’t a problem if you’re just looking to be entertained but, for true fans of the original films that have been rebooted by Nispel and producer Michael Bay, it’s hard not to wonder just why exactly these franchises needed a reboot as opposed to a sequel.  Watching a film like Friday the 13th reboot, it’s hard not to feel as if the filmmakers simply gave up trying to bring anything new to the equation and instead rather cynically decided to just capitalize on the earlier work of filmmakers who, as opposed to Nispel and Bay, aren’t in the current mainstream of the Hollywood establishment.

The main difference between a reboot like Friday the 13th and the original films in the franchise is that the reboot cost a lot more to make.  It’s a lot slicker (and therefore, you never really buy into the reality of the horror) and, with a few exceptions like Aaron Yoo, it’s full of bland actors who are recognizable from TV and who seem to be going out of their way to “act like characters in a slasher film” as opposed to at least trying to give actual performances.  It almost feels as if Nispel, Bay, and the cast are specifically going out of their way to wink at us and tell us, “We’re so much better than the movie that you just paid money to see.”  It feels incredibly condescending.

The film’s attempt to shoehorn the original first four films of the franchise into one 97 minute movie results in a film that often feels rather rushed.

“OMG!  Just Like Me!” Moments

Oh, a lot.  I would be so dead if I ever wandered into a slasher film.

Lessons Learned

From rewatching the entire Friday the 13th franchise, I learned several lessons: Don’t have premarital sex (or probably not even marital sex for that matter, Jason has got some issues), don’t drink beer, don’t smoke weed, don’t snort cocaine, don’t skinny dip, don’t go commando, don’t go in the wood, don’t go camping, don’t walking into a dark room, don’t say, “Is there anyone here?,” don’t shower, don’t sleep in abandoned cabins, don’t help out strangers, don’t hitchhike, don’t flirt, and … well, don’t do anything and you should be just fine. 

However, what fun would that be?

Well, this concludes my series on the Friday the 13th franchise.  I’ll be posting a few final thoughts on the franchise as a whole later tonight or on Sunday but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these reviews as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.  Stay supple and don’t go wandering around in the dark.  Happy Friday the 13th!

AMV of the Day: Sexy

The latest AMV of the Day is one I was recommended to by YouTube itself when I was checking my emails. It was a winning video at AKROSS Con 2010 by amv creator opiumVIDOK. The video is titled “Sexy”.

All I can say why I accepted this recommendation and used it as the latest “AMV of the Day” is how it perfectly exemplifies the reasons why some people love watching anime: Guns, Sex and Violence. Sometimes one or two in the same anime while at other times all three appear at the same time. It’s only reasonable that the creator of the video chose to use Marilyn Manson’s “mOBSCENE” track to score the video. If there was ever a criticism detractors of anime have it’s always that too much anime are obscene to the point of being pornographic.

I don’t know if I agree with that. I mean just watching “Sexy” it looks to be just 3-minutes of good, wholesome, animated fun.

Anime: Black Lagoon, NANA, K-On!, Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu, Goshuushou-sama Ninomiya-kun, To Love-Ru (TV), Hatsukoi Limited, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

Song: “mOBSCENE” by Marilyn Manson

Creator: opiumVIDOK