As hardcore horror fans, sometimes it feels like you’ve seen it all. There are no surprises left to discover, no classic slasher film waiting around the corner to thrill you and slap a childlike grin on your face. You try to feed the fix by searching through lists of “The Scariest Films You’ve Never Seen” only to come across titles like “May”, “The Descent”, and “Suspiria”. These are, of course, films that us diehards know and love all too well. That’s where I come in, dear reader. We’ll be taking a deep dive into the bowels of obscure horror from decades past and uncovering titles that might have fallen “Through the Cracks”.
Directed By: Tyler Tharpe
Around ten years ago, for a few bucks, I picked up an incredibly cheesy looking DVD from Shock-o-rama Video, entitled Freak. It sat on my shelf collecting dust for quite some time. When I eventually got around to watching it, I feared I’d picked up a stinker. This is an incredibly low budget affair. Thankfully, I recall my concerns were unfounded, and I was ultimately pleased with what I’d seen. The details remained foggy, however. I rediscovered the disc amongst my collection the other night as I was doing some organizing and figured why not toss it in the player? I ended up pretty much shook for the rest of the evening.
My main goal with these “Through the Cracks” articles (and upcoming podcast) is to truly shine a light on overlooked flicks that deserve a bit more attention. Freak certainly fits the bill. A cursory Google search returns very little in the way of info aside from a Rotten Tomatoes page with zilch in the way of critical opinion and an IMDB listing with only a handful of user reviews. The film has yet to make the leap to Blu-ray. As far as I can tell, this DVD, with its full frame, grain filled presentation is about as good as it gets. For those interested in checking it out, copies can still be found on Amazon. FYI, this is a case of what’s on the cover having pretty much nothing to do with the film itself.
Director Tyler Tharpe, whose only other feature credit appears to be a film called Return in Red (which I’ll be tracking down next), spearheads this regional Indiana production. While this certainly feels like a DIY ordeal, the pastoral autumn setting really lends to the overall feel of the movie. By the way, Freak is a 100% rff/ripoff/homage of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The film makes no excuses for the fact, however. It gladly wears the inspiration on its sleeve and marches forward with one goal in mind: reeling the viewer to the edge of their seat. In that, the film succeeds exceptionally well.
Quick caveat: this is not a flick for gore-hounds or those seeking a body count hack-n-slash. Tharpe is much more concerned in constructing a tense atmosphere that slowly builds to an all-out final girl battle with our titular psycho. The story opens to a ramshackle home in the boonies where a reclusive, hateful woman keeps her nine-year-old son chained in the attic and insists he cover his monstrous face with a patchwork mask. Though, a quick blink and you’ll miss it shot reveals his deformities are likely just a figment of her delusional imagination. Seriously, you guys, she’s a terrible mom.
In fact, after giving birth all by herself in bed to a second child, she doesn’t hesitate to drop the newborn into a trash fire where she quickly heads back inside for a much-deserved nap. This pretty much signals the last straw for her prisoner/offspring who sets about swiftly righting her wrongs. In these opening moments, the mood is perfectly set for the quietly chilling tale that follows. Flash forward several years and the child is now grown (“The Keller Boy,” uncredited but apparently played by the director himself) and about to be transported to a neighboring mental institution. Naturally, he escapes mid-transit (told you it owes a lot to Halloween).
The rest of the story centers on two sisters who are moving across the country, leaving behind their family home and too many painful memories. As you might expect, their paths ultimately cross with the escaped lunatic. That’s really all there is in terms of plot. That said, there’s the insane but in the realm of possibility likelihood that our heroine’s little sis is the long lost trash-fire sibling of the Keller boy, but that is never touched on. The fact that she was adopted at the same time as our Freak was institutionalized is probably just a thematic element to link them. Although, if there were ever a Freak 2 they could pull a “Laurie Strode/Cynthia Myers” and claim the groundwork was there all along.
Freak is barebones, shot on presumably a threadbare shoestring, and features acting that is…not the greatest. Despite all of that, it really does work at sending a chill down your spine. Taking a page (or two or three) from Carpenter, Tharpe shoots his villain in brief glimpses. His guise, a series of white bandages wrapped around his “deformed” face, cuts a creepy silhouette whether in shadow or the more adrenaline fueled final moments. A distinctive and bold choice is the score. It’s minimalist, even occasionally nonexistent, with several of the more suspenseful moments playing out with nothing on the soundtrack but wind rustling through the leaves. The editing is also top notch, whipping up tension in an instant by way of a couple of well-placed inserts. The Keller Boy’s mental state is conveyed through quick-cut flashbacks, all without him uttering a word.
For those who love the style of Halloween and enjoy their chills to come at a deliberate drip, Freak is a damn fine thriller. Likely shot on 16mm short ends, a script that is simply the basest of narrative, and a crew that probably features more than a few family and friends – Tharpe manages to wring every drop from what he had available. Again, I feel the need to reiterate, while this is structurally a slasher film, the body count is very minimal as is the red sticky stuff. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this little indie. I can really sum it up for you as “Ti West decided to remake Halloween with a local Indiana theater troupe.” So…from that statement alone, you should know if this will be your jam or not.