Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #8: Freakshow (2007)

Directed by Drew Bell

By Amy M. Vaughn

24 October 2020

This movie isn’t good, but it might have some redeeming qualities.

Freakshow bills itself as an unofficial remake of Freaks (1932). The setup is that a group of murderous thieves is hiding out in a carnival as rousties. They’re waiting for opening night so they can steal the nut (aka earnings). One of the criminals is a busty, pout-lipped female who overhears the boil-covered carnival owner say he wants to sell some of his properties and settle down. She decides to seduce him, marry him, and kill him in order to inherit everything he owns.

So, yeah, there are a few ways the film is like Freaks. The setting is a carnival and a beautiful woman is trying to take advantage of someone who is biologically unique. Oh, and it’s supposed to be set in the 30s, but for that to be true we need to ignore the modern cars in the background and the guys with huge metal gauges in their ears who swing around from hooks through more gauges in the flesh of their shoulder blades. I’m not saying that being suspended by hooks wouldn’t have been an act in the old days, but the shiny steel gauges didn’t exist. Plus, it would have been more likely to happen at a Wild West show since the tradition comes from a native tribe called the Mandan.

Another way Freakshow is like Freaks is that there are real physically anomalous people. There’s an armless knife thrower, a man with no legs, a little person, a young man with hypertrichosis (a Dog Faced Boy), and a bearded lady. There are also gaffs (or fakes): a woman with a flipper hand, a girl with facial deformities billed in the credits as a mongoloid, and a person with bulbous protrusions on their head reminiscent of Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man.

They also have a half-n-half, a person billed as half man and half woman. The problem with half-n-halfs has always been that they are split down the center, which isn’t really how it biologically works. There were real hermaphrodites on the circuit back in the day, but as rare as they were, and as taboo as it was to show genitalia (even in the name of “science” or “education”), people of both sexes were almost always saved for the blow-off.

Eli Harmer, the Camel Girl, shown in the film’s opening credits

The movie is, as I mentioned, not good. It’s both the writing and the acting that kill it. But then a person goes by on a unicycle juggling fire sticks and all is forgiven for another ten minutes. So the pouty-lipped criminal, Lucy, seduces the ugly, boil-covered show runner. He asks her to marry him and they recreate the iconic dinner party. But instead of saying, “One of us,” perhaps out of fear of copyright infringement, they say, “Welcome Lucy.” Lucy freaks out, says mean things, and runs away.

Then there’s this weird subplot about two of the accomplices scalping and decapitating a developmentally disabled “freak” child. My guess is it’s there because they couldn’t justify killing five people just because one of them said mean things. Anyway, the carnies cremate their dead and mutilated family member in a burn barrel, and then, in ways best suited to their unique biologies and abilities, the freaks kill the four male criminals. While they lack the suspense and menace of the same scenes in the original Freaks, the kills are still kind of fun.

Finally, the sideshow family tortures and mutilates Lucy in a scene that goes on way too long, and that’s me saying that. I’m usually all the way on board for old school prosthetics and special effects. What could be going on here is an attempted recreation of the 30 minutes of footage Tod Browning was forced to edit out of his original film. Thirty minutes, so the story goes, that mostly consisted of the freaks mutilating the “bride” into the birdwoman and castrating the Strong Man.

Whether or not that was Bell’s intention, Lucy really gets it. They cut out her tongue, sew her mouth closed, cut off her eyelids, remove her toes, open one of her boobs and dig around in it, and on and on. And because of movie magic, she lives (!) to become Winnie the Worm, the newest attraction in the “Gallery of Strange People,” even though she looks more like something out of Hellraiser—being just a skinless torso and head—than anything you’d see on a sideshow banner.

Freakshow loves its freaks. In the story, the normal people are all evil or weak (which makes this different from Freaks,in which the knife thrower’s assistant and the clown were at least sympathetic). In filming Freakshow, the freaks get center stage. It’s as if the normal bodied people are only there so the unique people can be in frame. The freaks are even better actors than the non-freaks.

Freakshow isn’t scary, it isn’t well written or acted, the indoor sets are questionable at best, and it isn’t a very good remake. But it is quite plainly a labor of love.

3 out of 5 Josephine Josephs

Available on Tubi.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s