I remember a long time ago hearing Kevin Smith talk about how when he first was showing Clerks (1994) to potential distributers, that producer James Jacks wanted to buy the film and remake it rather than release the original film, filming in colour and using professional actors. Thankfully, that did not happen, and Jacks would go on to produce Smith’s follow up Mallrats (1995) instead. However, on some level, one can understand Jacks point of view, even if it would have been a bad idea. Nobody will claim that Clerks is the remotely polished on the technical front, and some of the acting outside the main cast (scratch that, INCLUDING the main cast) is amateur. But at the end of it, these flaws not only add to Clerks charm, but give it an aesthetic quality that is oddly memorable and appropriate for the subject matter.
Freak Out, an independent film shot on home video, is a film that I very much look at and feel the same way as James Jacks felt upon seeing Clerks: I would love to see it remade with a budget and access to a solid kit of cinematic tools to play with. Freak Out’s director, writer and star Brad Jones (of Cinema Snob fame) has created a film that is rich with raw potential and ambition that often is outside the grasp of his available resources, but none the less fascinating to watch.
Set in the late 1970s, the film focuses on a teenage high school dropout named Wayne (Nick Forester), who along with two friends makes his way to the home of Dean (Jones himself), in search of a hang out and drugs. Dean however, has a big secret: he is a sadistic murderer who commits his crimes in his basement, and manipulates Wayne and another dropout named Dave (Buford Stowers) into capturing his victims for him. While Dean agrees not to kill or torture Wayne’s friends, as the night goes on, things begin to unravel, and neither Wayne nor his friends may be safe.
While the story of the film might sound like the premise to a modern day horror film, Jones’ film most surprisingly is evocative of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Like Rope, the film centers around a party in which the guests are not aware that their host(s) are murdering psychopaths (or perhaps sociopaths in the case of Rope), where much of the tension lies around the threat of the guests not only finding out, but also from the tension that develops between the murders as their separate desires, personalities and possible guilt come into conflict. As such, the film is less a horror film or thriller and more of a character study, as we are brought into Dean’s world as it is “invaded” by the party guests.
Without question, the best element in the film is Brad Jones himself as Dean. While many of the other actors, particularly Sarah Ogg as Rhonda, are wooden or uncomfortable, Jones throws himself into Dean with glee, crafting a villain that manages to dodge many of the serial killer clichés of the past thirty years to become a twisted, memorable villain. The film never gives an explicit reason for the reason Dean acts, thankfully dodging the wretched moment that plagues many of these films as a killer’s psychosis is the result of a single incident. While the film does unfortunately want to bring the question of Dean’s sexuality into being a possible reason, Joes does work in that it may not be Dean’s sexual orientation is connected to his actions, but instead his reactions to the judgments of others towards his entire lifestyle.
Where Freak Out falters is the result of the lack of resources and occasionally experience, as the film is a first time effort from Jones and his crew. While Jones and crew do their best to make the home video look of the film work, the film rarely is able to overcome the low quality of the source. This is worse on the audio front in many instances though, as dialogue is frequently hard to hear, which is a shame, as Jones writing is often the best element of the film. Another frustrating element to the film was the decision to set it in the late 1970s. While I understand the artistic intent in doing so, the materials needed to successfully pull off a period piece are not present in the final work. Rarely, aside from the soundtrack (which features excellent selections of period music), does the film manage to successfully evoke the 1970s. For the sake of this version, setting it in present day may have assisted in avoiding this issue.
One of the more conflicting aspects of the film is the use of violence, or rather, some of the execution. The first murder committed on screen by Dean is chilling, and effectively shot and edited and a good indicator of just how dark a film this is going to be. However, given the excellent tension developed through the dialogue and the overall situation, the level of graphic violence in the second murder is gratuitous at best, and seems more of an attempt to shock than to unsettle. The implication of what Dean is about to do to his victim is far more chilling than the actual witnessing of the act and its removal from the film would have likely strengthened the scene. Furthermore, witnessing this outburst of violence midway through the film undermines the later horrors of the final scenes, giving the audience too much too much too soon that the final sequence feels milder compared to this earlier scene.
Lastly, the ending of the film is somewhat problematic. Throughout the film, the character of Rhonda is built up as being one of our lead protagonists throughout the film. However, by the time the final scenes arrive, Rhonda has been entirely sidelined from the film, as if she has been forgotten about. While I have noted that I was not taken with Sarah Ogg’s performance, (SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT) her reduction to being a victim in order to bolster Wayne’s position in the narrative is confusing, given the time that has been spent with her as a character up to this point. Furthermore, it is has been her character that has slowly begun to piece together what Dean, Wayne and Dave are involved in a series of unsolved murders, so her absence seems odd at this key point in the narrative. If she is murdered, it is unclear, given the murky image in the final scenes. Should another attempt at the film ever be mounted, the ending would benefit from a rewrite.
On the whole though, Freak Out is a film that is worth seeing for horror fans. It is not perfect, but shows a level of talent that will be interesting to see develop. The film can be found at Jones’ site here, in three parts. For those without a strong stomach though, you might be advised to look at other works on his site instead.