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Freak Out (2006)

Matthew A. Stern

This one is from a crew of incipient filmmakers with their hearts equally invested in horror and humor.

Freak Out

Director: Christian James
Cast: James Heathcoate, Dan Palmer, Nicola Connell, Chili Gold, Yazz Fetto
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-11-07

Comedy springs forth from the horror genre in a lot of unexpected ways and in a lot of unexpected places. You’ve got your self-aware, over-the-top splatterfests like Dead Alive, that make us laugh at the otherwise unseemly topic of dismemberment. Then there’s the unintentional hilarity of films like Silence of the Lambs, with its addictively quotable lines about lotion and baskets and its depiction of two distinctly humorous kinds of psychopaths -- the kind who quotes ancient Roman philosophy like its scripture and bites off peoples’ noses, and the kind who keep prisoners in a pit within his superlatively creepy basement, taking time off from antagonizing them to dance around with his weenie tucked between his legs and utter babyisms to his pet poodle.

But then there’s that broad genre of horror-comedy that tries to actually create something jokey, by finding some combination of those two oh-so-counterintuitively linked genres that works, and in the process sometimes erring more on the side of the hilarious, sometimes more on the side of the horrifying. Freak Out isn’t exactly a straight-up lampoon of genre conventions like, say, the Scary Movie series. It’s a no-budget comedy with aspirations to get gory, a slasher film with a dorky premise, involving dorks making a slasher film with an even dorkier slasher as its subject, and a piecemeal satire with a sense of humor that ranges from adolescent to vaudevillian.

An opening flashback, appropriately filmed in back-flashing black and white, depicts an elementary school student cursed with theatrical mannerisms so obnoxious even his own mother can’t stand him. He gives a monologue to a crowd of bullying peers who bombard him with lunchmeat, and flees, vowing revenge. The scene shifts to present day, where we meet Merv (James Heathecoate), the consummate horror movie aficionado. He spends his days hanging out at a video store freaking out little kids with his scrupulous knowledge of slasher films, which is mildly funny. His last name is "Doody", which isn’t funny at all. He reads "Arse Pirahnas" Magazine, which is a decent-enough running gag. Merv lives in that bedroom every horror-buff at one time wished he had: walls plastered with a jumble of sci-fi and horror posters -- like Yabbo’s bomb-shelter bedroom in Gleaming the Cube for those oriented more towards the macabre.

The irritating, bullied-youth-cum-psychopath shows up inexplicably at Merv’s house after his escape from a mental institution, clad in an orange jumpsuit and ready to wreak revenge. Merv, along with his pervy buddy Onkey (Dan Palmer), do their best to shape the deceptively murderous sissy into a real-live serial killer. With a potato sack and a hockey mask on his head, and after a Rocky-style training montage, the unlikely spatula-driven throat slittings begins. The film ends up being pretty disjointed, but it does its best to celebrate all things tangential with a self-referential smirk.

Freak Out is the kind of movie you want to like no matter how many laughs or how much gore it actually delivers, because it’s so clearly a labor of love. A cable TV interview in the DVD special features mentions the cast and crew’s struggles, scraping together money and finding time outside of school and part-time jobs to bring the film into being. However, there’s still the fundamental problem of the premise: for all the reverence which with Freak Out lovingly mocks horror genre conventions, a psycho with a forcedly flowery affectation, no matter how murderous he ends up getting, is a little hard to watch and just isn’t all that funny. Sure, a psych ward sissy is a decent lampoon of the tried-and-true lumbering Michael Meyers archetype, but shortly into the film it seems like that particular joke that keeps getting slaughtered, rather than the cast members.

Freak Out ends up being host to a few too many jokes that die on the vine. Merv sits in his bedroom watching a horror movie featuring a female protagonist's conversation with some wag of monster, in which the heroine delineates her specific intent to show boobage, but the mock-up sounds a bit too forced. A dick-joke dialogue between Merv and Onkey that equates a talking serial killer doll intended for mass-marketing with the male baby-making organ, for instance, stretches out far too long (no pun intended) -- long past the point of the phallic metaphor making any sense.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t any nicely timed absurdist gags to be found throughout Freak Out. The film delights in all walks of juvenilia, horrific and otherwise. Onkey is always good for a well placed snark-bomb, and both of the protagonists are continuously assaulted by self-aware sight gaggery; for instance, an Evil Dead style zombie whirring at a jump-cut addled frenzy revealed by Merv, with blasé indifference, to be his grandmother.

Sure, Freak Out could use more gore, cartoony or realistic. It could hang together more tightly, and it could reel in some of its more ancillary excursions and far-flung jokes in favor of a more consistently rollicking good time. You won’t find the hilariously nuanced verisimilitude of Shaun of the Dead’s take on late-20s living in the unlikely event of a zombie attack. But what you will see, as evinced by the disc full of special features, is a crew of incipient filmmakers with their hearts equally invested in horror and humor. Brimming with the cast and crew’s inside jokes, (featuring, among other things, arse piranhas galore) and a piecemeal chronicle of the film's years-long coming into being, the most telling portion of the Bonus Features disc is the account of the crew orchestrating the film’s final explosion. It’s a clear indication, with the setting of amateur explosives, of a bunch of true movie buffs living the do-it-yourself dream, and an inspiration to anyone who ever imagined themselves making a low-budget movie inexorably ending with something big going "boom".


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