Freak 1999 Review
Directed by: Tyler Tharpe
Starring: Amy Paliganoff, Travis Patton, Andrea Johnson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Freak is not particularly rare or hard to find and it secured global distribution on both VHS and DVD, which is a real feat for a slice of regional filmmaking. Despite that status, it never gets mentioned really by any slasher enthusiasts that I speak to and it’s something of an overlooked entry to the category.
The production was launched ten months after the release of Scream, but this is no cash-in on the craze started by the cycle’s rebirth and feels cinematically closer to its earlier cousins. It was one that has been sitting on my shelf for a while, but it’s only now that I have found the time to give it a whirl.
In the opening, a disfigured child kills his mother with a rock in a macabre and daunting scene. Many years later, we meet Staci a young woman who is about to move house with her younger sister Jodi. They set off at the exact same time as the murderer from the opening is being transferred to a new hospital for treatment. After a mistake from the driver of the transportation van, the menace is free to roam the roads and he homes in on the two sisters as they head across the spacious Ohio farmlands.
Like most DTV slashers released over the past fifteen years, Freak has been visibly produced on the most minuscule of budgets. It works to the films favour however as the grainy 16MM photography and the desolate Midwestern backdrops give it a good gritty tone. The plot was heavily influenced by Halloween and shows no shame of wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. Much like the aforementioned classic, it spends time developing its characters and builds suspense through portraying the psychological effects of its actions rather than using sharp shocks and gore. I am inclined to label this as more of a slow building thriller than an out and out slasher film even if it does utilise every single cliché and knows within which genre it wants to be classified.
The maniac here looks really creepy in his workman clothes and face covered in bandages and comes across visually as a combination between Michael Myers and the nut job from Blood Harvest. His intentions are authentic as in he doesn’t seem to want to kill as many bystanders as humanly possible and instead he has a more deluded plan of action. The fact that he only murders three people (one in the prologue) may put off most gore hounds, but I quite enjoyed the steady simmering of the synopsis and it has a neat vibe of impending doom. The abused child coming back for revenge gimmick has been done a plethora of times, but here it is handled quite effectively with an authentic pay off. This also hints at an obvious plot twist that looked like a dead-cert, but it never really gets explained and is only conveyed through hints and guesses. I wonder if there are some missing scenes for this somewhere that never made the final print, because it’s unusual not to reveal such a branch in the story in further detail.
What I did find interesting was that director Tyler Tharpe only uses a very light score during the terror moments in his feature, which was something of an odd and risky decision. There’s a nice acoustic piece for the scenes that move the story along, but nothing menacing when the mood switches. Horror thrives on its musical accompaniment and very few can survive without an atmospheric theme, but Freak manages to pull it off. The director goes for realism and just about achieves it and there’s nothing here supernatural or unbelievable, which credits his approach. His framing is tight and he pulls off some good scares and well-edited jumps whenever the bogeyman is on screen and the final chase sequence is remarkably exciting. After watching this, I hunted out his other feature, Return in Red, which shows that Tharpe is a director that believes in his methodology of slowly boiling up his plot through deep characterisations. In these days of MTV quick cuts and beautiful leads, his style is refreshing and owes more to the classic tactic of Carpenter and dare I say it Hitchcock. One of the weakest links of modern slashers is that they leave their story in the hands of a group of personas who all have the looks of Armani models and offer no connection to the average everyday Joe like you and I. This makes it extremely hard to relate to them and therefore the horror is only possible through the wizardry of a slick cinematographer or excessive gore. I like that this was brazen enough to take a stab at individuality and it cannot in any way be considered as an attempt at over-exploitation ie Gutterballs. There’s no nudity, profanity or outrageous effects here.
The dramatics are not outstanding, but they’re definitely strong enough to carry the plot and make you care about its players and intrigued by what fate has in store for them. This was also one of the rare stalk and slash flicks that uses protagonist narration to help expand the story’s background and the final girl here is a real fighter and shows immense courage when left to confront her assailant. The feature also touched on the morals of one particular character, whose recklessness and lack of concentration allowed the fiend to escape. He is more concerned about the impending consequences and his own predicament than the doom that has been left in the wake of his actions. His grovelling pleas for a favour in the conclusion were squirm-inducing.
I am somewhat hesitant to class Freak as a hidden gem, because I respect my slasher readers and I am not sure that all of you will agree. It has long periods were the pace falls quite limp and this is definitely NOT an audacious killer spectacular along the lines of Friday the 13th or Scream. If you like your chills built through characters and creepy imagery (check out the shots of the psycho sitting in the corner of his cell) then this should be a real treat for you, but as a teenie kill splatter flick, you will hate it with a passion.
This is a very brave attempt to be different and I saw a lot of excellent stuff that I really enjoyed here. It reminded me a lot of Symphony of Evil, but without the fantastic score, which is perhaps one thing that this lacked. It is a very rare occurrence that I can pick up a bottom shelf DTV slasher flick and be thoroughly impressed and maybe that’s what makes me rate it so highly.
Recommend, but with caution. It is only if you like this style of picture that you will really enjoy its benefits
Final Girl √√√