In a modern retelling of Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932), “Freakshow” tells the story of a group of criminals who chose to hide out by working security at a traveling circus. At first, they plot with an insider to steal the ticket sales, but the wily Lucy has bigger plans. She convinces the gang to let her seduce and marry the aging circus owner, Lon, in order to secure the entire circus fortune after he “suffers an accident”. “People die all the time,” Lucy says. The freaks are on to their scheme, however, and when the youngest of them is caught by the ruthless gang, they show no mercy to ensure her silence.
Drew Bell’s Freakshow employs the classic tactics of classic exploitation films to grab our attention. The picture on the cover shows a large crowd of what, in following the example of the movie’s title, I will call “circus freaks.” There’s the strongman, the half-man, half-woman, the completely tattooed and pierced newcomer, the extra-hairy character, and a strange beast of a human locked in a cage, among others. We get a big banner across the middle that states this movie has been “Banned in 43 Countries,” further piquing our perverted interests and voyeuristic tendencies. A very bold (and very misguided) quote across the top finally convinces us to pay the couple bucks to rent this possible diamond in the rough: “In the tradition of Tod Browning’s Freaks.” I’m here to step in, help you put your hard-earned money back into your wallet, and save you from what might have been, in hindsight, a wasted eighty-five minutes of your life. I’ve seen Tod Browning’s Freaks; Freakshow is no Freaks.
The general story of Freakshow is fairly simple and predictable. There is a traveling circus freakshow mostly comprised of human “oddities,” but also employing a handful of “regular” people as handymen and ticket takers. One night, after hearing the owner talking of his great wealth, the regular people decide to rob the place. Lucy (played stiffly by Rebekah Kochan) ups the ante, saying why settle for a couple nights worth of ticket sales money when she could probably marry the owner (Lon, played by Christopher Adamson, best known for his reoccurring role as Jimmy Legs in the Pirates of the Caribbean films) and then get all of his money when he falls victim to an “accident.” First, she has to win his heart and the collective heart of his closest friends and family, the circus freaks, who are very hesitant to let any outsiders into their sacred circle. You can feel free to guess what might happen next. I’ll give you a clue, it’s super obvious.
I hate to bash on independent and low budget horror film makers, especially ones new to the game. Freakshow is writer Keith Leopard’s first and only movie to date, and only the second movie directed by relative new-comer Drew Bell (the first being the equally panned Random Acts of Violence). But there really isn’t much to their 2007 effort. You’ve got a series of thrown together shots, going back and forth from a scene of an armless man throwing knives and lighting a cigarette with his feet, then over to the carnies drinking beer, swearing a lot, and planning a robbery, then back to some tattooed dudes being lifted into the air by hooks in their backs, then back to the same carnies further drinking, swearing and planning the same heist again. Every now and then, we get a shot of an empty ferris wheel moving and some old timey music playing as the interlude between scenes, or a throw-in shot of one of the two blonde women in the cast taking their shirts off. The whole thing feels like a low budget p*rn that tries to incorporate a “storyline” but is missing the sex that people expected when they brought the movie home in a shady, black plastic bag.
For anyone still convinced by the tagline comparing this film to the 1932 Browning classic, my suggestion to you is to just re-watch Freaks. There really isn’t much of a comparison. Sure, the general idea is somewhat the same, but the deliveries are completely different. Most glaringly, in Freaks, Browning develops his characters, makes us care about them, so when we reach the climax of the film, we are offended and rooting for the circus folks. In Freakshow, we pretty much loathe or, at best, just don’t care one way or another about any of the characters. There is no emotional connection between the viewer and what is happening on screen. It’s almost as if we aren’t supposed to care, as even the circus people we feel we should be rooting for are just beer swilling slobs; gross, weird, and monster-like.
The acting throughout Freakshow is bad, as is the editing and the attempt at setting the scene of a circus sideshow. One of the claims of the movie is that they used “real” circus freaks, but I don’t know how accurate this statement is. There doesn’t ever seem to be a show going on, only a bunch of circus workers wandering around the tents for days upon days. There’s never even a crowd there, so I’m not sure how much the bad guys could have expected to run away with if not a single ticket was ever sold. At the end, there is finally some violence, some bloodshed, and the expected climax, but by that time it’s almost too late. Freakshow is not a movie I recommend, not because it is controversial, but because it is watered down and bland. That being said, I’m not against giving the writer and/or director another shot if I see their names on a different movie; we all make mistakes, and hopefully we learn from our biggest ones.