Carnival of carnies
After dissolving his partnership with director Herschell Gordon Lewis, producer Dave Friedman headed out to California. Before long he’d formed a new filmmaking partnership with showman Dan Sonney. Together they produced and distributed a long string of cutting edge (for the time) adult features, such as The Defilers, Space Thing and A Sweet Sickness.
The adult pictures were very successful, but Friedman had always wanted to make a picture with a carnival setting, as that was where he’d started his show business career. Seeing a chance to get a wider release, he crafted this story of sleaze and horror in the sideshow.
The picture opens with Friedman himself as a sideshow talker, hawking the exhibition of a human oddity so horrible that audiences react with screams and shudders. A flashback shows the origin of the unseen horror.
Hard edged and cynical Jade Cochran (Claire Brennan) is fed up with waitressing at a greasy spoon in a dusty little Texas town (despite the fact that it looks the same as Fuad Ramses’ deli in Blood Feast — this scene was actually shot in a real California diner). When the front man for a traveling carnival shows up in the diner, Jade sees her chance to take off for a chance at something better, just like thousands of other small town girls.
The feature has lots of random carny footage, which may slow down the pace somewhat for some viewers, but it provides an excellent time capsule of what traveling carnivals used to be like.
Jade has no trouble getting a job waitressing in the show’s grab joint, where she finds conditions much improved over her last job. She befriends a stripper named Moon (Lynn Courtney) — with whom she becomes roommates, and makes an edgy acquaintance with studly Ferris wheel foreman Blackie Fleming (slumming airline pilot Lee Raymond). The carny life, and its people, agree with Jade — except for the performers in the freak show, for whom she shows only disgust.
But it’s not long before Jade’s ambition flares again, and she sets her sights on landing the show’s most prosperous available resident, handsome Steve St. John (Bill McKinney, later a hillbilly in Deliverance) — owner of the 10-in-one (freak show). Meanwhile, even without her presence, roughies Blackie and Pretty Boy (Bill Bagdad) start fighting over the show’s newest arrival.
By the time the show has finished its run, Jade has St. John wrapped around her little finger. By the time they’ve set up in a new town, she’s started an affair with Blackie as well, even as she’s becoming Mrs. St. John.
Though her husband is the owner of a freak show, Jade still feels only disgust for them. Despite this, she has no problem with taking over the business after maneuvering her two lovers into a fight that leaves Steve dead and Blackie in prison for his murder. Her first move is to fire the midget Shorty (Felix Silla), who’d ratted on her to her late husband.
But Shorty and his friends in the show don’t take kindly to the new owner’s harsh treatment, and that night they exact a terrible vengeance.
Long seen only in washed out prints on video and television, Something Weird Video’s fresh full screen digital master makes Bill Troiano’s cinematography look as sharp and brilliantly hued as any Elvis Presley picture of the same vintage.
Mainly a remake of Tod Browning’s classic Freaks, She Freak is more successful at showing the broad and colorful outdoor aspect of the carnival. The main flaw of She Freak may be the relative lack of real human oddities on display. To quash the wrath of any dissatisfied customers, Friedman prepared a “square-up reel” for the picture (included on the disc) — 8.5 minutes of raw newsreel footage that shows Hubert’s Museum, a typical 10-in-one show from the 1930s, plus footage of the romantic adventures of famous conjoined twins.
On Friedman’s commentrak, hosted by Something Weird’s Mike Vraney, he goes into detail of the film’s production, and talks about how Byron Mabe went from acting in The Defilers to directing, how they arranged for the use of a state fair carnival, and gives information on all the stars, as well as the history of carnivals in America.
Though retired (he says) from the motion picture business, Friedman has returned to his true love, buying an interest in carnivals once again.