It's weird that after Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves' movie careers went on very different trajectories with the latter becoming a huge star and the former just sort of disappearing. Looking back at both Bill & Ted movies, there's nothing to suggest that either was the better actor. I guess that Reeves pretty boy looks were just more suited to crossing over to action flicks like Speed and the occasional art house film like My Own Private Idaho, while Winter really only suited comedies.
In the early 1990s Alex Winter, together with Tom Stern, directed a number of bizarre comedy skits for MTV under the title of The Idiot Box (most of which can be found on youtube) and not long after they signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to write and direct a feature film in a similar vein. However neither Winter or Stern had any directing experience and the film was further compromised when Fox exec Joe Roth who was very keen on the film, was replaced by Peter Chernin who hated the film and cut its running time and budget. Freaked received very poor test screening and eventually got a tiny release in 1993. Needless to say it destroyed Winter's career as an actor but he's since bounced back with a career in film directing.
The film sees Alex Winter plays Ricky Coogin, a dislikable sell out actor who travels to a South American country, with his equally dislikable best friend Ernie in tow. He's been sent there by a company called EES to do some endorsement adverts for Zygrot-24, a deadly toxic chemical. Almost as soon as they arrive Coogin picks up an attractive young activist Julie (Megan Ward) and the three of them head out on the road where they come across a sign for a carnival freak show. When they arrive the find the place deserted except for the owner Skuggs (Randy Quaid) who beckons them into his tent for a private show. However, there is no show, and all three turn out to be new recruits. You see Skuggs is using Zygrot-24 as a chemical to mutate ordinary people into hideous freaks for his show. Will Ricky and the rest of the freaks be able to escape their captor, and will they ever be able to turn themselves back into normal people again?
That's the essence of the film's plot but I've left out a lot of details. And that's sort of the problem, the film feels stuffed with ideas but not all of them are well articulated. Part of the problem is the directing – though the gags are great, the structure of the movie is all over the placed. The film does feel at times like a comedy skit that's been drawn out to 80 minutes. There's little set up to the story or the characters, you're very much thrown in at the deep end and forced to keep up. Most disappointing is that despite all the exciting sets, costumes and make-up, the film rarely feels cinematic.
Anyone going into the film expecting Bill & Ted 3 are going to be slightly disappointed. Winter and Stern's humour is far more twisted and dark (but just as funny). There's lot of satire about how shameless and shallow movies stars are and how evil big business is. They make Coogin's character very narcissistic and mean, much more than any usual studio film would. Freaked is clearly heavily influenced by Monty Python and Mel Brooks with the focus being on the gags and weird characters rather than the story. The most funny character is probably Stuey, a little ginger boy who continually gets violently hurt trying to get Coogin's autograph.
Like Brooks' films, Freaked is a very self-aware movie at times commenting on how silly it all is. At one point Coogin, who has been ousted by the freak group, comes up with his own scheme to escape by dressing as a milkman only to later meet all the rest of the freaks who have independently planned to escape dressed as milkmen. When Quaid spots them through his window rather than be suspicious, he brushes it off and says to himself “A lot of milkmen on the same route! No wonder they fight.”
The effects work is stunning and all practical. All the freaks are great designs, particularly Coogin's deformity which is that half of his body looks like Stripe from Gremlins. You've also got Mr T as the bearded lady, Bobcat Goldthwait as a man with a sock puppet for a head, John Hawkes as a literal Cow Boy and even an uncredited Keanu as Ortiz the Dog Boy. The funniest though is probably Frogman who despite his name is just a guy in a diver's outfit (“There's no hope for you Frogman”). The look of the film and the costumes feel very reminiscent of early 90s punk rock CD covers of cartoonish demons with bulging eyes. There's also a stunning but nightmarish opening credit sequence done entirely in claymation.
Freaked is tough film to sum up, there's a lot of good stuff in it but you need to wade through quite an uneven story. Having a different director would have probably ensured a more coherent film but would have also likely stifled Winter and Stern's bizarre imagination. Anyway, given it's subject matter and gross out effects Freaked would have flopped even if it had been a wide release but I think that's fine. If ever there was a film destined to become a cult classic from day one, this is it.