Monday, October 10, 2022

"Be With It, For It" - She Freak (1967) - Film #239

It is time to return to the 1960s and examine 1967's carnival drama She-Freak, produced by celebrated showman David F. Friedman and directed by Byron Mabe. In addition to being an unofficial remake of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), the film is also an educational exploration of the traveling carnival lifestyle.

Of course, some of your universe's critics are not enamored with She Freak. For example, reviewer Sarasate writes, "This film has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Bad acting, an even worse script, poor cinematography ... you name it, it all flops." Reviewer BaronBl00d writes, "There are some films that are bad, and there is this film which is BAD!" And reviewer firedan-2 writes, "Totally stupid. Awful writing, thinner-than-cardboard characters, UGLY photography/editing, no plot, painful acting, STUPID."

Read on for the truth about She Freak...

The film opens, somewhat unusually, with a text crawl that says, in part, “While most of the action of this picture takes place on [sic] a large American carnival and the time is the present, dramatic license has been taken and certain incidents occur in the telling of the story that simply could not and would not happen in this time and setting.” 

The film cuts to a ferris wheel being loaded and carnival rides—most of look quite unsafe even for 1967–lurch into motion. After at least five minutes of footage of scramblers, tilts-a-whirl, merries-go-round, roller coasters, grilling hamburgers, dancing bikini women, and go-karts, the film begins its opening credits—superimposed atop another five minutes of carnival ride footage. Eventually, the film’s narrative begins as Madame Sonya, an elderly snake charmer, performs her show in a sideshow tent. We enter the carnival’s freak show, where the barker intones, “There are only two kinds of freaks, ladies and gentlemen: those created by God and those made by man.” He asks people to look at the freak enclosed in a pit. “Look…if you must.” A young woman looks at the freak and opens her mouth in a silent scream.

The film flashes back to a diner, where attractive waitress Jade shoots down the advances of a prospective suitor by shaking her head. She also fends off the advances of her boss, the fry cook/cafe owner. “Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?” the man snaps at her.

“I know who I am,” she responds. “I’m nobody. Just like you.” She moves closer to him. “I know something else, too. If’n I’m ever gonna be somebody, I’m wasting my time in this filth pit. And that goes for anybody who comes in here. That includes the married owner.”

“What do you want, Jade? Do you know it yourself?”

“No, but I know what I don’t want. I don’t want to wind up like my momma did. My daddy used to say she was the prettiest girl in West Texas. She’s a tired old woman now. Forty-two years old and she’s a tired old woman.” (Given that Jade is clearly in her mid-thirties, her mother must have given birth quite young.)

Jade leaves the cafe and sits on a low wall out front. Fortunately for her, a car immediately pulls into the dirt lot and a businessman wearing a suit enters the cafe. Jade returns to the cafe to serve the man his grilled cheese and coffee. It turns out the man, Ben Thomas, is an “advance man” for a carnival, and he convinces the boss to hang up a poster advertising the upcoming carnival. Jade tells him, honestly, that she is interesting in joining the carnival, so he tells her to talk to Al Babcock once the carnival rolls into town.

When Ben Thomas is done, Jade chases him outside to thank him. He tells her, “I don’t even know if there’s anything open on the show, honey. And I surely don’t know what a pretty young girl like you wants to get with it. It’s your life. Look, if that’s what you want, be with it, for it.”

Of course, her boss isn’t happy. “Get out of here, you carnival tramp,” he tells her. He adds, “You’re going down. All the way down. To Hell.”

“From here,” she replies, “it’s all the way up.”

The next part of the film is a series of shots (one hesitates to use the word “montage” due to the lack of dissolves) of the carnival rides being assembled. 

The set-up shots take roughly ten minutes of screen time, and are capped off with a wonderful aerial shot of the entire carnival.

The story returns as Jade walks along the carnival stalls until she finds the business officer, a trailer near the food trailers. She meets with Al Babcock, who assigns her to bus picnic tables. She meets a blonde woman named Moon Mullins, a stripper named after a comic strip, and Blackie Fleming, the ride foreman, also known as the Ferris Wheel Man.

After another montage in which Blackie introduces Jade to his Ferris wheel (not a euphemism), Jade visits the sideshow.

Jade is highly disturbed by the sideshow, though the only acts we see are a sword swallower and a woman lecturing about a boa constrictor.

Jade runs across the carnival lot until she is stopped by Moon Mullins in her stripper outfit. “I just saw them,” Jade tells Moon.

“The freaks?”

“They’re so horrible.”

“Honey, God made them the way they are. They’re better off here than most places.”

“Why do they have to be anywhere?” Jade says with a sneer.

We are then treated to Moon’s onstage sideshow, performed entirely in a fluffy bikini.

At the motel room they share, Moon tells Jade that she was once married to a musician. Showing he is a skilled filmmaker, however, director Byron Mabe spends more time showing the two women changing clothes by stripping down to their respective underwear, and also in the bathtub, covered only by generous proportions of bubbles.

As they talk, Moon mentions that the only eligible bachelor at the carnival is Steve St. John, who runs the sideshow, also known as the “ten-in-one.” 

Elsewhere, there is a fight on the carnival lot between Blackie Fleming and a man named Pretty Boy (an ironic nickname, I assure you). When Pretty Boy inflames Blackie’s passions by referring to Jade (“Well, now, Mr. Fleming, we all know you’re a real big wheel around this show, but if I decide to take a shot at that little hash-slinging yokel, I ain’t gonna bother asking you”), Blackie punches him and then rather aggressively jams a screwdriver through the man’s hand.

The next day, Jade meets Steve St. John at a picnic table, where she serves him and Al Babcock coffees. Afterward, Steve buys her a Coke. After they go on a date, Jade returns to her motel room, where Moon is entertaining her friend Jane, who works as fortune teller Madame Olga. Jane reads Jade’s palm and finds that her lifeline stops and starts again. Though Jane is worried, Jade is happy, prophetically saying, “I’m starting a whole new life. And I ain’t gonna remember the old one.”

Soon the carnies break down the carnival and load the components on trucks, giving the fascinated audience a glimpse of how bumper car floors are raised in pieces off their supporting two-by-fours. The carnival relocates to the next town, and we watch for ten more minutes the carnies reassembling the rides and structures. 

In a somewhat confusing scene, Jade comes on to the bad boy Blackie and he invites her into his trailer, where she slaps him and then makes love to him, the act of lovemaking creatively symbolized by shots of Ferris wheels turning endlessly. In the morning, Jade continues her pursuit of the clean-cut freakshow entrepreneur Steve St. John. They walk through the carnival at night, enjoying cotton candy and Ferris wheel rides (not to mention trying on confederate army hats) in what must be a proverbial busman’s holiday. They get engaged and Jade winks at Moon, who looks terrified the two are getting married, for some reason.

After the quickie wedding, Jade wakes up in Steve’s motel room and they order room service breakfast together in a clever comedic scene that involves Jade kissing her husband while he lists his order to room service over the phone: “Scrambled eggs…bacon…and uh toast…butter…jam…and coffee. Lots of coffee.” (The scene fades out before we learn why they are ordering so much coffee.)

As is its wont, the film moves on to another montage, this one of Jade buying clothes and then showing them to Moon. Unlike the various montages of assembling and disassembling carnival equipment, this montage is quite short, though no less fulfilling to the audience.

Later, after Jade leaves her husband’s late-night poker game (featuring prolific actor Felix Silla, a real circus performer who would portray Cousin Itt, the Manitou, and Twiki) and wanders the carnival lot, eventually walking past Blackie’s trailer. He confronts her but she tells him to “flake off” (possibly a euphemism). Eventually, they make love, but their act is witnessed by Felix Silla.

Later, after Jade expresses her discuss with the freaks, including Mr. Silla, Steve lectures her in bed. “It’s the kindest home some of them have ever had, being on the show. Some come from parents who were cruel or ashamed of having produced a child unlike others. Here, they have an opportunity to be self-supporting in a world which has rejected them simply because physically they’re abnormal. And they’re with others just like themselves.”

“Aw,” Jade says skeptically, brushing her hair, “you just feel sorry for them.”

“No. That’s one thing they don’t want…or need. Pity.” He tells a story of a kid with no arms or legs who was full of self pity, but Steve whipped him into shape. “He’s still with it, and for it, and doing okay.”

Jade summarizes the result of the lecture: “They’re disgusting.”

After another montage of assembling the circus, Mr. Silla tells Steve what he saw, but Steve slaps the man’s face.

Back at the motel, Blackie arrives at Jade’s room, allowing the filmmakers to frame Blackie’s legs in a sexually suggestive manner.

Surprisingly, Steve waits in front of the motel, waiting for Blackie to come out to jump him. This confrontation does not work out well for Steve. As foreshadowed when Blackie stabbed a screwdriver through Pretty Boy’s hand, Blackie is prone to violence. He stabs Steve several times with a knife, and when he leaves Jade looks at Steve’s dying body. A grin creeps across Jade’s face.

The next day, Jade drives her late husband’s Lincoln Continental up to the entrance of the sideshow. She takes over the freakshow and fires Mr. Silla. Jade also cuts ties with Moon.

In the film’s shocking finale, Jade is confronted at night by the sideshow freaks (oddly, the only one we have seen previously is Mr. Silla). In an homage to Tod Browning’s classic film, the freaks assault Jade, turning her into one of her own attractions.

The film cuts back to the present, with a woman screaming at the sight of one of the freaks. The filmmakers finally show the result of the assault on Jade, as she has become a shockingly deformed woman who, for unknown reasons, is also a snake handler.

Of course, nobody watches horror films (or, for that matter, carnival dramas) for the scenes of horror and drama alone. Everybody wants to experience an educational experience. She Freak provides nearly as much education as thrills--perhaps more. If the horror audience wants to see such things as bumper-car floors being disassembled, Ferris wheels being disassembled, tents being put up, swords being swallowed, and snakes being charmed, She Freak provides all of this and more. The scenes of horror--the screwdriver attack, the knifing of poor Steve St. John, and the final reveal of the freakish Jade--are almost icing on the educational cake. What more could someone want from a semi-remake of Freaks?

Nothing. That's what.