Wednesday , September 23 2020
Revisiting the 1967 drive-in horror pic, She Freak. . .

“All the More Appalling in COLOR!”

Woke up this Valentine Day’s way ahead of the rest of the human occupants in the house – not an unusual weekend occurrence, actually – so I did what I often do on a Saturday a.m.: sat with a cuppa joe, plus some bagels & cream cheese, and I watched a cheesy DVD. This week’s selection came courtesy of exploitation archivists Something Weird: 1967’s She Freak, a low-rent rewrite of Tod Browning’s horror classic Freaks that was scripted and produced by David F Friedman, a prolific exploitation producer who also helped to unleash Herschell Gordon Lewis’ goreflix, Blood Feast and 2,000 Maniacs on an unsuspecting drive-in audience.
Freak tells the story of Jade Cochran (Claire Brennan), a trampy Texas waitress with a fondness for posing in front of lighting that’ll highlight the curves within her dress and a penchant for speaking into the camera and revealing her rather frightening incisors. As with Freaks, Jade’s story is presented as a barker’s spiel, something that may or may not be true. The movie opens with an extended montage of a carny setting (West Coast Carnival Shows let Friedman and director Byron Mabe film all over, so at least a third of the flick is devoted to dialog-free sequences taking advantage of the setting) then takes us into a Ten-in-One show where we glimpse a snake charmer plus a sword swallower, then a barker introducing a flashback build-up to the titular “she freak,” who we won’t see until the film’s spine-chilling climax. (Kinda pointless, since her image was on the original movie poster and is plastered on the front of the DVD box, but that’s par for this kinda low-budget job.)
When a carny advanced man arrives at the nowheresville cafe where Jade is waitressing, our anti-heroine is intriqued. She wants “something better,” so naturally she takes a job as a waitress for the carnival’s Midway Diner. (After the Mel Sharples type who runs the small Texas diner learns of her intentions, he freaks and calls her a “carnival tramp.”) Once she’s established in her new job, Jade befriends the carnival’s “burly-cue” dancer (Lynn Courtney), then sets her sights on the most promising male in the vicinity, sideshow owner Steve St. John (Bill McKinley), all the while carrying on a tempestuous affair with a violent roustabout named Blackie Fleming (Lee Raymond).
Though St. John’s Ten-in-One is a big moneymaker, Jade is repulsed by the sight of the attractions. “They’re human beings, just like you and me,” St. John says, though we’re never really shown that since the only sideshow freak on film throughout the movie is a cowboy hat-wearing midget named Shorty who’s given maybe two lines of dialog. Unlike Freaks, which sympathetically focused on the lives of its sideshow performers, the spotlight here is on the essentially unlikable Jade. Perhaps scripter Friedman was working toward a Nightmare Alley morality fable of personal descent and degradation. More likely, the main reason we don’t see the sideshow performers is it would’ve cost too much to put together a full Freaks ensemble.
If She Freak stints on the sideshow grotesquery, it does contain a brief “hooch” dance by Courtney, which provides much inadvertent hilarity by including the sounds of hooting and hollering on the soundtrack then cutting to shots of a comatose audience on folding chairs.
A total cheapie, in other words, with two under-rehearsed fight scenes (and poorly synchronized slugs), repetitious lounge rock on the soundtrack and beaucoup shots of ferris wheels and rubes eating cotton candy. One of the fights – between Blackie and an unnamed roustabout – ends with the latter receiving a screwdriver in the middle of an obvious rubber hand, the only really “gruesome” moment in the movie. Of course, the Jade/Blackie/St. John triangle leads to murder, but that’s not the pic’s Big Climax. That’s reserved for the moment when all the real freaks in St. John’s troupe (a bunch of bug-eyed actors in fright wigs) show up out of nowhere to enact their revenge on the mercenary Jade. They transform her into what she most loathes – which brings us back to the present and our much-anticipated glimpse of the titular She Freak.
The big reveal, courtesy of Harry Thomas (who also designed the makeup for Frankensteins Daughter), is admittedly tasteless fun: Jade has been transmogrified into a half-snake/half woman only capable of hissing at the aghast rubes. She fondles a large snake and gestures to the audience to come join her. Cut to a disbelieving bumpkin snickering at the creature on display: The End. Watching it today, you can readily imagine a nation of disgruntled drive-in patrons shouting, “That’s it?!?!” in unison from the back seats of their beaters.
Because I’ve had a longstanding fascination with sideshow, I probably enjoyed She Freak more than a lot of viewers – if only because of the limited glimpses it offers of the tent show milieu. Better still: as a DVD bonus, the folks at Something Weird also include a short unedited collection of newsreel footage showing real life sideshow performers and barkers from the thirties. Shot from a distance with poor sound (I suspect the filmmakers were shooting with voiceover narration in mind), it nonetheless manages to capture more of the sideshow/carny world than all 80-plus minutes of Freak.
During the last fifteen minutes of my Valentine’s viewing, my wife came into the living room and caught the flick’s conclusion. “That was awful,” she declared. “Was the whole film that bad?” No, I assured her; she’d seen the best part. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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