Freak Out (2004)

Starring James Heathcote, Dan Palmer, Nicola Connell, Chili Gold

Directed by Christian James

One of the advantages of writing for movie websites, and editing movie magazines, is that you get to see a shitload of movies for free. Free screenings, free DVDs, it’s a nice perk.

One of the disadvantages of writing for movie websites, and editing movie magazines, is that every sucker who ever pointed their Dad’s camcorder wants you to see their movie as well. Horror films are often the first port of call for such amateur filmmakers because, as Sam Raimi proved in 1982, even cheap horror has an audience.

Now, this isn’t to disparage all those enthusiastic genre fans slaving away on their back garden monster epics. Hell, I “starred” in an astonishingly bad ten minute slasher movie at college – complete with Heinz ketchup special effects and shaky POV shots. It’s just that…most amateur horror movies are best enjoyed by those who make them.

So where’s all this leading? Excellent question.

It’s leading to Freak Out, one such British indie movie that seems to have built a small cult online following – thanks in no small part to a relentless e-mail campaign from the makers that could teach Lloyd Kaufman a few things about tenacity.

Having been sucked into their promotional dungeon, I checked out their website and realised I liked the cut of these fellows trousers. I appreciated their witty way with the written word, and decided I should probably keep my promise and watch the VHS copy of the movie they’d sent me. It was quite good timing actually, as with Shaun of the Dead generating all sorts of buzz, English horror-comedy is in vogue right now.

Whereas Shaun of the Dead approaches the comedy/horror interface from the angle of “horror film with laughs”, Freak Out comes at it from the opposite direction – it’s a comedy that just happens to take place in the horror genre. And don’t think it’s swimming in the same toilet bowl as the craptacular Scary Movie franchise – these guys riff on horror because they love it, not because there’s an easy gag to be had.

The hero of our story is Merv, a hapless horror fan, useless with the ladies, who spends his time in his attic room, surrounded by genre merchandise, watching endless shitty horror tapes. His best mate, Onkey, is the sort of scheming shit who is always on the look out for a scam and often uses Merv as a means to an end. When Merv discovers an escaped mental patient in his house, he seizes the opportunity with indecent excitement – he could be looking at the next Freddy, the next Jason…or the next Wishmaster at the very least. And so Merv and Onkey set about grooming their newly christened Looney to be the next big thing in murder and death, with licensing deals and TV shows their ultimate aim. Trouble is, Looney is a lisping vegetarian who’d rather wash the dishes than hack someone to death…

As with any no-budget genre flick, there’s more than a whiff of Peter Jackson surrounding Freak Out – most of the cast also double as the writers and producers – and the whirling dervish camerawork owes more than a tip of the hat to Mr Raimi.

What is impressive is that they pull it off. There’s a riff on the old fruit cellar scene from Evil Dead 2 that not only matches Raimi’s manic camera perfectly, but turns the scare on its head with impeccable comic timing and the line “you really should get that clock fixed”. Spoofing the Blair Witch Project is about as cutting edge as spoofing Bullet Time, and yet Freak Out contains the only Blair Witch piss-take to actually make me laugh – a clumsy stage version of the cult hit, with a proper witch in a pointy hat as the villain. What Freak Out does best is take stylistic influences from the first two Evil Dead movies – amongst others – and serves them up with such shameless candour and sly humour that you can’t help laughing.

And laugh you will. I certainly did, which is no mean feat considering I sat down to watch the movie in my best “go on, impress me” mood. To my surprise, I did actually laugh out loud throughout the film and by the end I’d completely forgotten it was a cheap amateur effort. Horror is fairly easy to pull off on a low budget, as you just need to throw fake blood at the screen and study Halloween for ideas. But getting comedy right requires pacing and timing, and Freak Out has both of those in spades. From drawn-out surreal visual gags (including a very bizarre job interview), clever verbal sparring to slam-bang slapstick, these guys hit the punchline bulls-eye every time.

The comedy framework of Freak Out is a enthusiastic throwback to the over the top days of the 80s, from John Landis screwball to John Hughes teen comedy. If this were made in 1985, Onkey would be played by Curtis Armstrong and Merv would be Andrew McCarthy. If you want an easy reference point, then imagine Weird Science, if Kelly LeBrock were replaced by a slightly camp Jason Voorhees. It also reminded me of the sort of movie that Troma used to put out, back when they were fun and cheap by necessity, before their output started feeling deliberately lousy, as if that’s the only gimmick they can fall back on. The same blend of cheap FX, tasteless gags and unfettered lunacy that helped The Toxic Avenger overcome its budgetary handicaps to become a cult classic beats beneath the pasty, clammy skin of Freak Out. With a real budget, these guys would produce something pretty special, I reckon.

As for horror fans, the true pleasures of Freak Out will come more from the plentiful references and riffs on our beloved genre (such as Onkey working in an arcade called Salem’s Slots) rather than the actual horror content of the movie. There is some fun splatter, but for budgetary reasons some scenes that should have painted the screen red take place mostly off-screen. However, things do pick up towards the end, with a suitably insane climactic battle in a supermarket parking lot – where the sight of a rampaging maniac wearing a huge papier-mache Larry Hagman headpiece, and a man being cut in half by a giant spatula are just two of the treats that await you.

The pacing wanders a little around the halfway mark (they just produced a fresh edit that’s ten minutes leaner) and as the movie builds towards the end there’s a few too many scenes that rely too much on incidental characters or information put across in blink-and-you-miss-them earlier scenes, but – given the restrictions surrounding the production – those are about the only nitpicks I can make. Maybe some of the supporting cast are a bit shaky, but the two leads – James Heathcote as Merv and writer/producer Dan Palmer as the punchable Onkey – already display better comic skill than most of what passes for comedy on the screen these days. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but you can sense that they’re like fleshy lumps of coal, ready to be crushed into comedy diamonds by the right hands.

Apart from that, Freak Out nimbly avoids all the technical traps that usually cut the legs from under low budget movies. There’s plenty of coverage, so no endless two-headed midshots for the dialogue scenes. The lighting and sound – often the most obvious indicators of cheap moviemaking – are perfectly fine. Even the editing is razor sharp, and hits all the comic beats on the nose. There’s even a surprising array of location work – some on obviously thrown together sets, but no less impressive for it – and some “celebrity” cameos from Radio 1 film critic James King and Arrow In The Head’s very own John Fallon. Well, his voice at least. In other words, for an amateur movie, it’s remarkably professional. The highest praise you can offer any amateur film is that once you start watching, you forget its origins and just enjoy it as a movie.

As horror, Freak Out doesn’t really take itself seriously enough to truly deliver. But as a comedy made by, and for, horror fans it’s fucking hilarious. What more can you ask for?

3 1/2 out of 5

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Jon Condit