Freak VHS

The kind you don’t bring home to mother
Guest Review by Paul Freitag

There are certain directors, Abel Ferrara and Gregg Araki to name two, that I have terminally mixed feelings towards.  At one end, I admire what they’re trying to do a good percentage of the time, and can see that they’re trying to do something different with genre conventions. And yet, somehow, the films themselves just aren’t that good.  In fact, many of them are downright awful.

Freak is like that.  On the surface, it’s a simple, straightforward Halloween knock-off about a mental patient in a mask that covers his face who killed his mother as a child, and in the present day, has escaped from being transported to a new facility in order to stalk his younger sister Jodi.  Hell, “knock-off” isn’t the word – replace “mother” with “older sister” and you’ve got a virtual remake.

However, for once, instead of applying the by-the-numbers scenarios and stock characters that Halloween‘s successors have run into the ground, Freak goes back to the original and tries harder to replicate what puts it head-and-shoulders above the rest.  Instead of focusing on a whole group of irritating teens, Freak chooses to follow only Jodi and her adoptive older sister Stacy on the road to a new home.  So, instead of a bunch of useless caricatures, we get two well-established characters.  This is good.

The only other figure in the film is Jason, the asylum van driver who allowed the loon (who’s face, in true Halloween fashion, we never see) to escape.  While it could have easily been set up for Jason to emerge as an obvious love interest for Stacy, the two mostly just take turns ignoring and being irritated by each other, choosing to focus mostly on the task at hand.  A good thing.

And then there’s the atmosphere.  While lesser-reaching stalking films focus on quick shocks, Freak builds slowly after the moody opening sequence in which the killer offs his mom, more along the lines of the dingy, brooding atmosphere of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than any of the Friday the 13th series.  Never once will you see a cat jump out of a closet, though there is a rather adorable ferret.  There’s minimal violence and loads of Halloween-influenced cinematography.  It builds and builds on atmosphere, climaxing with…

Not much at all, really.

The problem, it seems, is that director Tyler Tharpe went so far out of his way to avoid genre stereotypes that he forgot to put one very important one in – suspense.  The action scenes happen so suddenly that there’s no chance to build appropriately with creepy P.O.V. shots or the like.  Never in the film are you so sure that something’s going to happen any second, nor do you feel like the characters are safe.  It’s all mood, no payoff-and unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the action sequences themselves don’t have the raw energy to contain much in the way of shock value. 

It’s all fairly nicely done, though.  The acting is good, especially by Amy Paliganoff as the heroine Stacy, there are some genuinely creepy moments, and it’s nice to see a low-budget horror flick not obsessed with endless bloodletting.  But Freak has a host of continuity problems and the plot just kind of runs along on handy coincidence rather than being convincingly clever, and the whole thing is really more depressing than actually scary. (Gore hounds will be disappointed that the “gruesome memories to fuel his insane bloodlust” promised on the box never emerge.)

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