The early 90s in America will not, I believe it is safe to say, go down in history as a particularly tumultuous time. We had wriggled our way out of the Cold War with nary a scratch, and save for blood briefly drawn in desert storm, things remained relatively stable in the US of A, the country feasting on the remains of the prosperous late 80s. And so, looking back at the 90s, one tends to associate the period with a certain lightness and, well, “fun.”
This, I think, led to a streak of superficiality and sentimentality in mainstream television and film. Of course, yes, I do realize that the “mainstream” is designed to be just that, however, if you show up at any 90s party on a college campus, you’d see a dearth of fluorescent colors, spandex, poofy, blown out hair, thick eye shadow and tight jeans. The 90s in America, I feel, will never be remembered as an era of depth and discovery.
Freaked is a movie that seems to take the Hollywood we knew in the 1990s to task, poking holes in the bubble of the mainstream. To be sure, Freaked is not necessarily straight satire or a movie intending to deploy any sort of political or ideological assaults. Not consciously, at least.
The essential story is this: former child actor star Ricky Coogan is coaxed into a endorsement deal with a seemingly corrupt pharmaceutical corporation, shilling a wonderdrug known as Zyrgot-24. Coogan and his friend Ernie (played by Blossom’s Michael Stoyanov) traipse to South America to begin work promoting the drug. The pair, through a series of somewhat contrived events, end up getting lost in the imaginary Santa Flan and find themselves at the “Freek Show,” a sideshow led by the truly hairbrained and evil Elijah C. Skuggs, played by the always creepy and horrifying Randy Quaid. This, as you might expect, leads to Ricky and his friend (along with a comely protestor they picked up along the way) to be turned into mutants by Skuggs’s hand and then thrust onto the stage as the latest additions to the show. Ricky, shortly after becoming a hideous mutant himself, is fired by the original corporation, EES before finding out that the “Freek Show’s” supplier is none other than EES. The circle of corruption is complete and Ricky takes both the show and EES to task.
Plot, surely, is not the strength of Freaked. In fact, it seems as if the entire story were conjured up in the time it takes in between ordering fast food via a drive-thru intercom and receiving your sack of greasy, congealed muck. Rather, the strength of Freaked lies within its delivery. Scenes are packed with wall-to-wall jokes and range from the silly (Eddie comes out of an airport bathroom with a rubber hand sticking out of his fly that remains there for several scenes), to the predictable (the protestor Eddie and Ricky meet is adorned with a Che Guavara-like beret), to the absurd (Bobcat Goldthwait as a talking sock. Enough said). Every opportunity for a joke is taken, and, for better or worse, the actors in Freaked commit hard to the particular tenor of the script.
Personally, I think the absurdity of Freaked, whether consciously or not, serves as a nice foil to the lightness the 90s seemed to have in the box office. It shows us the darker side of mutants, mutants that aren’t superheroes, lauded for their humankind-saving ways. It is, at times violent and ugly, but its surreal nature and commitment to silliness undercuts any darkness -- as well it should because after all, this film is first and foremost a comedy.
Of course, Freaked tanked at the box office -- hard -- barely making a dent in the supposed twelve-million it was lent by 20th Century Fox, which is ultimately a shame. It’s the sort of movie that can make you just uncomfortable enough to contemplate your surroundings and how you live. Absurdity can do that, and while Freaked is not especially groundbreaking, it’s absurdity works on a level that points out the little blemishes on the things we once thought to be perfect and pristine.