When I revisited Tod Browning’s 1932 silent horror classic Freaks last October, I was struck by how the majority of the story it tells doesn’t play like a horror film at all. Before the titular circus “freaks” band together to avenge a bungled assassination attempt on one of their own, the movie mostly plays like a kind of hangout comedy, preaching an empathetic “We’re all human” message that’s later completely undone by its freaks-as-monsters horror conclusion. The 1993 horror comedy Freaked isn’t exactly a remake of Browning’s film, but it oddly mirrors that exact mix of tones. Continuing the inherent exploitative nature of sideshow freaks as a form of entertainment, Freaked is a morally grotesque work with a toxically shitty attitude towards physical deformity & abnormality, one very much steeped in Gen-X 90s ideological apathy. It’s also an affably goofy hangout comedy packed with a cast of vibrant, over the top characters. Freaked will leave you feeling just as icky as Freaks, although maybe not as intellectually stimulated, and I’m pretty sure that exact effect was entirely its intent.
Alex Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq.) directs and stars as an Ace Ventura-style ham and a Hollywood douche. It’s as if the evil versions of Bill & Ted from Bogus Journey were the protagonists of a horror comedy and you were supposed to find their Politically Incorrect hijinks hilarious instead of despicable. Along with a fellow wise-cracking asshole and a bleeding heart political protestor (picked up for her looks), Winter’s fictional movie star cad is lured to a crooked sideshow operated by a visibly drunk Randy Quaid. Quaid transforms these three unsavory souls into freaks for his sideshow against their will, where they join the ranks of fellow imprisoned performers in desperate need of a revolt: Bobcat Goldthwait as an anthropomorphic sock puppet, Mr. T as a bearded lady, John Hawkes as a literal cow-boy, Keanu Reeves as a humanoid dog/political revolutionary, etc. There’s also a side plot about an Evil Corporation dabbling in illegal chemical dumping, but Freaked is mostly a mix of special effects mayhem, Looney Tunes wise-cracking, and poorly aged indulgences in racial stereotypes, transphobia, and sexual assault humor.
Freaked is in a weird position as a cultural object. It’s shot like a breakfast cereal commercial and indulges in so much juvenile humor that its best chance for entirely pleasing a newfound audience would be reaching immature preteens with a taste for the macabre. I would never recommend this movie to an undiscerning youngster, though, since its sense of morality is deeply toxic in a 2010s context. (Big Top Pee-wee is both sweeter and somehow stranger, while essentially accomplishing the same tone.) Much like with Freaks, however, there’s plenty to enjoy here once you wince your way past the horrifically outdated social politics. Special effects & creature designs from frequent Brian Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George and a psych rock soundtrack from 90s pranksters The Butthole Surfers afford the film a raucous, punk energy. Meta humor about Hollywood as an cesspool teeming with sell-outs (especially in the jokes involving a fictional film series titled Ghost Dude) lands with full impact and colors the freak show plot in an interesting entertainment industry context. Mostly, though, Freaked is simply just gross, which can be a positive in its merits as a creature-driven horror comedy, but a huge setback in its merits as an expression of Gen-X moral apathy. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it’s just as much of a marred-by-its-time mixed bag as the much more well-respected Tod Browning original.
For years, I’ve been curious about the New York City-set heist comedy Quick Change because of a single, isolated image: Bill Murray robbing a bank while dressed like a birthday clown. Since at least as far back as Rushmore, Murray has been perpetually playing a sad clown type in nearly all of his onscreen roles, so it seemed too perfect that there was a film out there where he made the archetype literal. Unfortunately, Murray The Clown does not last too long into Quick Change‘s runtime. It makes for a wonderfully bizarre image, but the bank-robbing clown sequence is only a short introduction to the film’s larger plot. As a heist film, Quick Change does not put much stock into the intricate difficulties of robbing a bank in New York City; it’s more concerned with the complications of making away with the loot in a city that resembles an urbanized Hell. As the tagline puts it, “The bank robbery was easy. But getting out of New York was a nightmare.”
The cliché statement “New York City itself is a character in the film” usually means that a movie uses the rich, multicultural setting of the city to breathe life into the background atmosphere, usually by including a large cast of small roles from all walks of NYC life. In Quick Change, New York City is a character in that it’s a malicious villain, going out of its way to destroy the lives of the film’s bank-robbing anti-hero. In a media climate stuffed with so many gushing love letters to the magic of New York, Quick Change is fascinating as a harshly critical screed trying to tear the city down, which is an impressively bold perspective for unassuming mid-budget comedy. The birthday clown bank heist is certainly the best-looking & most impressively choreographed sequence of the film, especially in the gradual reveal that Murray had two insiders helping him pull off the robbery while hiding in plain sight as hostages (Geena Davis & Randy Quaid). The dynamic among this trio doesn’t hold as much emotional weight as the film requires it to, but they are amusingly dwarfed by the complex shittiness of a larger city that has trapped them with a never ending series of obstacles between them & the airport. Murray explains to his cohorts, in reference to the police on their tails, “Our only hope is that they’re mired in the same shit we have to wade in every day.” This filthy, crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani New York is crawling with reprobates always on the verge of sex & violence. Passersby whistle at & ogle Geena Davis and express disappointment when strangers nearly die but pull through. Mobsters, construction workers, and fascist bus drivers make simple tasks complex ordeals. Mexican immigrants joust on bicycles with sharpened garden tools. There’s a hideous, hateful side of the city waiting to reveal itself at every turn, which the movie posits as a facet of daily life in the Big Rotten Apple.
Quick Change falls at an interesting midpoint in Bill Murray’s career, halfway between the comedy megastar days of Ghostbusters & Stripes and the serious artist collaborations with auteurs like Wes Anderson & Sofia Coppola. Once Jonathan Demme dropped out as the film’s director, Murray himself stepped in as co-director (along with his partner in the elephant-themed road comedy Larger than Life, Howard Franklin) and you can see why it was important for him to hold onto the project in that way. Quick Change was not a commercial hit (despite positive reviews), but it does a good job of allowing Murray to play to his strengths as a downtrodden, put-upon cynic while still adhering to the general aesthetic of a commercially-friendly late 80s comedy (which unfortunately includes gay panic & racial stereotype humor in its DNA). A more interesting film might have held onto his birthday clown costuming for longer into the runtime, even as he struggled to escape the chaotic nastiness of New York City at large, but as a transitional piece between too radically different points in Murray’s career the movie is admirably goofy & bizarre. It even has a kind of cultural longevity in the way it includes then-young actors like Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, and Kurtwood Smith among the general population of the ruffians of New York, a city the movie clearly hates.