Color, 1967, 83 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Byron Mabe
Starring Claire Brennen, Lee Raymond, Lynn Courtney, Bill McKinney, Felix Silla, Claude Earl Jones, Ben Moore
AGFA / Something Weird (Blu-ray) (US R0HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment / Something Weird (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
A rare example of an exploitation producer whose name was a prime selling point regardless of the director, David F. Friedman was one of the biggest players on the American exploitation circuit throughout the 1960s and '70s including some of the best "roughies" ever made and a number of collaborations with the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis. However, the Alabama-born maestro of marketing actually grew up on the Southern carnival circuit, an experience that helped him develop an impeccable huckster instinct that helped keep his films busy on the exploitation circuit for years after most of their peers had reached their sell-by date. Nowhere did Friedman's two passions collide more extravagantly than She Freak, a shameless retooling of Tod Browning's horror classic Freaks shot in vivid color at a real carnival in Bakersfield, California. This was the second of several films Friedman produced with director Byron Mabe (following the astonishing A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine), who started off as an actor in The Defilers and would go to helm favorites like The Lustful Turk, Space Thing, The Bushwhacker, and The Acid Eaters. Though often classified as a sexploitation film, She Freak really isn't apart from a very tame burlesque performance and some PG-rated carnal shenanigans. In fact, apart from the last five minutes (whose stinger is spoiled on all of the existing promotional art), it barely even qualifies as a horror film. What you actually get is a wonderfully overripe snapshot of carny life held together with a sordid noir-style plot about a femme fatale whose wicked plans turned out to be spectacualrly miscalculated.
At a busy carnival, a barker (Friedman himself) ushers patrons to see the most terrifying attraction on the premises, a creation touted as an unholy consequence of both mankind and nature. As we see the shocked reactions, it's flashback time to lots and lots of carny film coverage and an introduction to our anti-heroine, Jade Cochran (The Touchables' Brennan), a diner waitress who's had it with working for her appropriately named boss, Greasy (Bride of Re-Animator's Claude Earl Jones). With the carnival in town, she decides to help serve lunches for some extra pocket money and gets to know owner Steve (The Outlaw Josey Wales' McKinney), whom she slowly manages to talk into becoming her husband. One of her first friends on the scene is burly-q performer Pat (Courtney), but it's stud-muffin ride operator Blackie (Raymond, future director of Friedman's The Adult Version of Jekyll & Hide) who really gets her heated up even once she's tied the knot. When the carnival falls under Jade's control, her disdain for the workers - especially the members of the freak show - proves to be a step too far for everyone involved.
The acquisition of the Friedman library by Something Weird Video back in its early days proved to be the real bedrock of the company's efforts to bring exploitation gems of all kinds to a public long unable to see them on a movie screen. The VHS editions in the early '90s became hot sellers as well as rental fixtures at some of the more adventurous indie rental stores, and She Freak's vibrant cover art made it a frequent favorite for some trashy, mindless weekend viewing. The film doesn't even try to complete with Browning's film in terms of actual freaks, an angle downplayed here almost entirely until the last few minutes. Instead it's more about the sideshow life in general, both scuzzy and affectionate at the same time with a keen sense for the environment as experienced by both the customers and the staff who have to live in it day in and out.
In 2000, She Freak was one of the earliest DVD releases from Image Entertainment as part of its licensing deal with Something Weird that led to a flood of Friedman classics in quick succession. The open matte 1.33:1 transfer from the original negative looked great at the time, up there with the even more psychedelic, candy-colored charms of Space Thing (which would make a real blazer of a Blu-ray if anyone gets around to it). The big extra on that disc was a fantastic commentary with Friedman and Something Weird founder Mike Vraney, whose long-running friendship comes through here with an engaging track packed with stories about this film, Mabe, and carny life in general. Anyone who's heard a Friedman track before knows what a great storyteller he is, and that's definitely true here as well. The fact that both men are no longer with us makes it an even more valuable record of a time in movie history truly unlike any other. Also included on that disc is a reel of archival carnival B&W footage (8m29s) and a Friedman gallery of exploitation art. A curio connected to this film later turned up on Something Weird's Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular, namely a batch of 3-D footage (8m34s) shot by Donn Davison added to She Freak for an unauthorized reissue as Asylum of the Insane. If you love watching kids throwing footballs and a guy slinging yo-yos at your face, don't miss it.
In 2021, AGFA and Something Weird joined forces to bring She Freak to Blu-ray (in the usual limited slipcover style) with a fresh 4K scan from the original 35mm camera negative. As you'd expected, it's a real stunner since Friedman and Vraney kept his entire catalog elements in perfect shape; the original 1.85:1 framing has been restored here resulting in far more focused compositions, and the detail level is such a massive upgrade here you won't believe your eyes with a cavalcade of textures on display that weren't even hinted at before. (Check out the fourth frame grab comparison below for a particularly dramatic example.) The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track is also in perfect shape and come with optional English SDH subtitles. The essential audio commentary is ported over here along with the archival carnival short (in SD), while the Asylum of the Insane bonus footage is also included here for the first time with the main feature. Also included is a promotional photo gallery (4m14s), and the disc comes with a welcome booklet featuring a wonderful appreciative essay by Something Weird's Lisa Petrucci. The big selling point for many customer may actually be a new HD presentation of The Laughing, Leering, Lampooning Lures of David F. Friedman (97m20s), a trailer compilation of Friedman's output from The Defilers to The Erotic Adventures of Zorro. This was a great sampler back in the day on VHS and is glorious to behold here with new scans of all the trailers (only one shot I could spot was slugged in from an SD source, presumably due to film damage), and you get all the greatest hits here including the extra-spicy versions of the trailers for The Erotic Adventures of Zorro and The Long, Swift Sword of Siegfried, plus the notorious one for The Adult Version of Jekyll & Hide that was singlehandedly responsible for getting the Extra Weird SW trailer compilation DVD banned from the Borders bookstore chain. If this doesn't make you anxious to get a lot more Friedman on Blu-ray soon, nothing will.
Reviewed on August 25, 2021