As I motor through my list of potentially chaotic movies I notice that all of the movies I’ve deemed worthy of this column have something in common: mysterious chemicals.
The film that kicked off my year — and was the impetus for this column — was Repo Man, a film featuring radiation and wild results. It’s still the best symbol of what I mean by chaotic weird movies. I don’t just want odd movies; the energy of the film is also very important. They need to be hyper in both intensity and content. They need to have so much going on that it’s a challenge to explain the film afterward.
The films I’ve chosen so far are overrun with chemicals that cause the characters to do bizarre things or change form. In Big Meat Eater it was Balonium; in Wild Zero there was a vat of unknown chemicals that caused the villain to shoot lasers from his eyes; and in Desperate Living it was the reverse rabies vaccination that killed the princess. In Freaked it’s Zygrot 24, a manufactured ooze that has been harnessed by Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid) to create “Freek Land.” Skuggs lures potential victims to his property with the promise of a freak show and then mutates his patrons using a computer and the ooze.
Released in 1993, Freaked is the handiwork of Bill S. Preston himself, Alex Winter. Winter, along with Tom Stern and Tim Burns, co-created an MTV comedy-video show called Idiot Box in 1990 and then went on to create Freaked in Idiot Box’s image. Directed by Winter and Stern and starring Winter as the Hollywood heartthrob who agrees to be a spokesman for a fertilizer called Zygrot 24 (for an obviously evil corporation called Everything Except Shoes), the film also features faces that appeared on Idiot Box such as Lee Arenberg (who plays The Eternal Flame, a guy who continuously farts flames), John Hawkes (as a cow dressed as a cowboy), Burns (as Frogman, a French man in a wetsuit) and Stern (as a milkman). The film — which was originally titled Hideous Mutant Freekz — also features Mr. T as the bearded lady; Bobcat Goldthwait (recognizable only by his classic, sadly now retired, voice) as Sockhead; Canada’s own Derek McGrath as Worm; and a well-disguised, uncredited Keanu Reeves as Ortiz the Dog Boy.
Like most chaotic weird movies, too much happens in the film to describe it all, but here’s a list of some of the other oddities we meet on this journey:
- a guy named Toad who can bring down an airplane with his tongue
- a man-sized worm with glasses
- a man with a nose for a head
- a turd that looks kinda like Winona Ryder
- thirteen mutants dressed like milkmen
- two Rastafarian eyeballs named Eye and Eye
- Ricky’s biggest fan (a kid with exaggerated ears and teeth) that everyone calls a troll and who survives a fall from a plane
- a Bob Vila lookalike
- Brooke Shields
Right from the start this film is 100% 1990s. The psychedelic claymation opening sequence is so MTV, it looks a lot like the Reality Bites spoof of what an MTV program looks like. Winter’s best friend and sole member of his entourage is played by Michael Stoyanov, better known as Blossom’s brother (who isn’t Joey Lawrence). And the love interest, Julie, is played by Encino Man and Joe’s Apartment star, Megan Ward. There’s even a cameo from Larry “Bud” Melman. (My friend had a zine called Zygrot 24, so that’s about as ’90s as it gets.)
The basic premise is that Ricky Coogan (Winter) agrees to promote the fertilizer and flies to Santa Flan (a fictional South American locale) to begin his life as a spokesman. When he arrives, he and his friend Ernie (Stoyanov) meet Julie, an anti-Zygrot 24 protestor, and lure her on the road with them. The three take a detour when they see signs for Freek Land and quickly find themselves strapped to operating tables while Skuggs squirts them with sludge. Skuggs fuses together Julie and Ernie (who immediately hate each other) and then runs out of juice while working on Ricky, leaving him half green, scaly, and pus-filled. Skugg’s process is fascinating. On his computer he selects features such as “hairy moles,” “open sores,” or “spinal buds” and chooses whether to deform “a lot,” “a little,” or “Michael Jackson.” When he hits enter the machine processes Zygrot 24 and shoots the correct mixture out of a slushie machine. After some steam and claymation effects, the mutation is complete and the gang are sent to a giant outhouse where the rest of the freaks live.
The actual “freak show” is like a cross between a circus, a vaudeville show, and a mosh pit. Each person has their own act, as approved by Skuggs — the bearded lady does a make-over on an audience member; Sockhead sings a polka — but Rick rebels and performs a soliloquy from Richard III. The audience showers him with flowers, but when an exec from EES arrives and makes fun of Ricky’s new look, his monster side takes over and he rips the business man’s head off.
Skuggs realizes the most entertaining prospect would be to create a full-monster-Ricky (a.k.a. Beast Boy) and get him to kill all his fellow mutants on stage, so he puts in an order for more Zygrot 24. Meanwhile the freaks set about a plan to stop Skuggs. A series of events ensue including an escape preparation montage, Ricky telepathically communicating with his biggest fan, the eyeballs killing Sockhead (“that sock full’a holes mon”),and Ricky accidentally stumbling upon macaroons that are the antidote to Zygrot 24.
In addition to all these bizarro characters, the film is also built around Airplane-style one-liners and gags. For instance, we first meet the freaks through a round of Hollywood Squares, as hosted by Ortiz the Dog Boy (complete with the skeleton of Paul Lynde in the centre square). Skuggs cackles maniacally as he shuts our heroes into his mutation lab, but is then revealed to be reading The Family Circus. (“I do admit they use the same joke over and over again, but I’m just a sucker for this little moppet’s shenanigans.”) And when we see flashbacks to all of the freaks’ origin stories, a hammer on the ground flashes back to his life as a wrench and everyone weeps.
The chaos swells toward the end when Ricky’s biggest fan is turned into a Rat Fink-style giant, but this film is more goofy than chaotic so it gets a six on the chaos metre. For bonus anarchy, check out Winter’s short film Bar-B-Que Movie (starring Butthole Surfers, who also appear in, and were the inspiration for, Freaked). It’s a psychedelic, cannibalistic wild ride.