Looking back at the absurd, gonzo brilliance of Alex Winter’s Freaked

Ahead of its screening at cult movie festival Weird Weekend, we look back at 1993 comedy Freaked with its co-writer and co-director Alex Winter bka Bill S Preston Esq

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 31 May 2018

Ask the average movie fan on the street to name the best American comedies of the 90s and they’ll suggest titles like Groundhog Day, The Big Lebowski and Clueless. A true aficionado, however, might add a curio like Freaked to that worthy list. Co-written and co-directed by Alex Winter and Tom Stern in 1993, this wild creation’s theatrical release was completely botched – as so many great films' have been – by its studio, 20th Century Fox, who lost all faith in Winter and Stern’s crazy vision after a bad test screening and an administration change at the company. But you can’t keep a good freak down. The film went on to build a small but rabid audience on home video, and a quarter of a century later it’s still gaining fans.

“The print gets a fair amount of labour,” Winter tells me down the phone from his office in Los Angeles. “My directing partner Tom Stern and I, we’ve done events all over the place. We had a big screening in the New Beverly cinema in LA, there was a screening in London at the Prince Charles. It’s actually showing in New York City this weekend.”

Winter can now add Glasgow to this list, as the film heads to the city in the first weekend in June to take pride of place in Weird Weekend, the inaugural cult festival run by righteous cinema exhibitors and offbeat movie champions Matchbox Cineclub. “I’m really happy that it’s being shown by this gang in Scotland who are really passionate and seem to have put a really great screening together,” says Winter. “I’m so grateful people still seem to get a kick out this movie.”

How could you not? Freaked opens with one of the all-time stupidest first lines in all of cinema. “We repeat, the flying gimp has been destroyed,” says a grave newsreader after some psychotronic opening credits scored by Henry Rollins and Blind Idiot God. “You may return to your homes.” The movie only gets more gonzo from there. It follows Winter as Ricky Coogan, a sleazy Hollywood actor who agrees to be the new face for Zygrot 24, a toxic crop fertilizer. Coogan’s shit eating grin is wiped off his pretty-boy face on a visit to the shady company’s South American HQ, however. While south of the equator he's abducted by Elijah C Skuggs (Randy Quaid), the demented proprietor of Freak Land, an old-school freak show where the attractions are created using Zygrot 24.

The chemical turns Winter’s character into Skuggs’ star exhibit, a hunchback whose lefthand side is now hideously scarred, deformed and oozing puss. Skuggs’ other creations include Bobcat Goldthwait as a man with a sockpuppet for a head, a dress-wearing Mr. T as the show’s Bearded Lady and the heroic Dog Boy, played by an unrecognisable Keanu Reeves.

Freaked’s comedy is a pleasing mix of the absurd and the abrasive, like a Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker spoof spliced with a Sam Raimi horror. Raimi was certainly an influence. “We weren’t trying to be ahead of our time or anything like that, that’s a commercial death knell,” says Winter “but I think unfortunately we were, even though we were also ripping off other stuff that was going on in the film world at that time, like what Raimi was doing and to some degree what Peter Jackson was up to then." Long before he became the JRR Tolkien fanboy we all know and love, the New Zealand director specialised in making raucously funny horror movies. "I was a huge fan of Meet the Feebles,” says Winter.

Winter and Stern’s influences don’t end there. Freaked’s story is basically a wonky remake of Tod Browning’s 1932 feature Freaks by way of the Phantom of the Opera. The comedy, meanwhile, blends the anarchy of Tex Avery cartoons with the satirical wit of Luis Buñuel and his fellow surrealists. There’s also “straight up influences from Mad Magazine, Zap comics and Robert Crumb in there,” adds Winter.

Watching Freaked today, what’s striking is how distinctive it looks. While most Hollywood comedies in the Judd Apatow era have taken on a flat look and confined their style to bland naturalism, Freaked reminds us how visually inventive comedies could be back in the early 90s. “We had an amazing crew,” says Winter. “We were young, and we’d made a lot of short films and music videos. We hadn’t made a feature before but we really surrounded ourselves with great talent.” One such talented crew member was Catherine Hardwicke, who’d go on to direct herself with films like Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and the first of the hugely successful Twilight films. On Freaked, she marsheled the eye-popping sets. “She’s a great director, but she’s also one of the greatest production designers I’ve ever worked with,” he says of Hardwicke.

As well as great art design, Winter also had some of the very best prosthetic and make-up people in the business on his team, including future Oscar-winner Bill Corso and Japanese special effects genius Screaming Mad George, who created the nightmarish and very slimy prosthetics for Brian Yuzna’s Society. “We made Freaked right before the world was about to turn from analogue to digital, and a lot of that stuff was going to go away, we caught it at the tail end. Every day on set was like a masterclass in that stuff.” Corso was responsible for designing Winter’s post-transformation look. “We just had an enormous amount of fun figuring out that make-up, and we were very close because he did the application on me every day, it was many many hours in the chair on top of directing, so I really was not getting much in the way of sleep. But I was a willing victim.”

Some of the cast were less willing. Specifically Mr T, who disappeared from set three days before shooting wrapped. “T was great,” says Winter of his AWOL star. “We loved him and we were really blown away that he wanted to do it, but I think he just got tired and a little fried. He had to bail out, he just couldn’t wear the dress anymore in that heat.” Despite pleading with his missing actor for three hours on the phone, Winter couldn’t convince Mr T to fly back to set, but they found a work-around. It turned out one of the cast members, Lee Arenberg, did a spot-on Mr T impression and could help fill in the gaps when it came to re-recording some of T’s dialogue during ADR.

Winter has no hard feelings, though. “I just saw T,” he tells me. “We hung out not that long ago, and he has very warm, fuzzy memories of making the film. I know that a lot of fans have come up to him to say how much they love his performance in it. There wasn’t bad blood.”

We reckon Winter might be being a bit soft on Mr T. After all, all he had to do was wear a dress and beard. Winter himself had it much worse with his own make-p, but his was a breeze compared to what his Bill & Ted co-star had to wear. “Keanu’s make-up was pretty horrendous,” Winter laughs. “Tony Gardner, who did his make-up, was also a genius. He didn’t want to just slap pre-made dog pieces on top of Reeves, he wanted to individually glue hair on to his body.

“I mean we shot in LA, we were in sound stages and in Malibu for the exteriors, and the heat was intense, and Reeves was going in at five in the morning to have hair individually glued to his face. I remember looking at him in the chair next to me thinking, ‘I’d much rather be doing what I’m doing than what you’re doing.’”

Winter and Reeves will soon be sharing a set again, with a second sequel to time-travelling teen comedy Bill & Ted due to shoot next year. Is he looking forward to Wyld Stallyns reforming? “It’s not exactly like we all called each other up and said ‘let’s get the band back together again,’” says Winter. “We’ve all been close for decades, Keanu and [the two writers] Chris [Matheson] and Ed [Solomon] and I. A lot of times over the years we’d be together and almost anecdotally we’d be like, ‘What would we make if we were going to make a Bill and Ted movie today?’ And we’d come up with some crazy shit and just start laughing maniacally.”

It was during just such a meet-up that the concept for this belated Bill & Ted sequel was formed. “About ten years ago we all came up with an idea that we all thought was really great. We were like, ‘this is so bonkers it could actually be worth doing.’ And that’s sort of what happened, and the guys went off and wrote a really amazing script and then we started the very lengthy, laborious process of trying to find people who want to finance it.”

After years of speculation, the film’s production was officially confirmed on 8 May, with a title revealed (Bill & Ted Face the Music) and a director announced (Dean Parisot, who made the brilliant Galaxy Quest). Can Winter share any more titbits at this early stage?

“The whole point of it is to really do something in the spirit of the original,” he says after a bit of prodding. “A lot of care has gone into giving it the same level of sincerity and the same type of humour, the same type of linguistic jokes wrapped around crazy language.”

Winter explains it’ll answer a lot of questions about the eponymous duo. “You’ll find out what the hell happened to these guys and what of their destiny did they or did they not fulfil. But obviously in a very light-hearted and absurd way. It has absolutely been designed to fit with the other two.”

This is music to our ears. Party on dudes!

Weird Weekend, CCA Glasgow, 2-3 Jun
Freaked screens Sat 2 Jun, 2pm, £5 + £1 booking fee – tickets here