Whether you have been before or not, a highlight for the UK genre fans is Frightfest – “the woodfest of gore“, a certain Mexican Oscar-winner has described it as. It does have a reputation as being a film festival of nothing more than 5 days of back to back horror, which may have been true once upon a time, no so much now, though. One of the highlights of the event (out now in USA through Well Go USA in America, no UK release date pencilled in yet) was Freaks. Not to be confused with Tod Browning’s 1932 controversial classic, Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s instead uses the language of certain genre to talk about the way in which society becomes feral when it fixes its gaze upon people that have been rendered ‘other’.
For the first half an hour the film isn’t a million miles away from Lenny Abrahamson’s masterful Room (2015), in that we have a father (Emile Hirsch) and his daughter, Chloe (Lexy Kolker) living in a house that has been made to look derelict with windows boarded and taped up and talk of the bad people outside who will hurt [Chloe] if she doesn’t act normal like everyone else. This passage of the film has a real sense of the uncanny about it. A doom-laden, broody intensity where it doesn’t clarify whether Hirsch is telling the truth or whether he is keeping his progeny captive for reasons untold. The house of cards that father (he is credited as that), Emile Hirsch, has constructed eventually starts a-tumbling by the simple mundane fact that she is 7 and wants some chocolate ice-cream. One day after her dad has fallen asleep, she escapes and is greeted by Bruce Dern’s ice-cream man – a meeting that blows the walls clean off her existence and we learn what is really happening in the world of Freaks. This is a film of two very different halves, as such, we won’t spoil what the film eventually becomes – that is a surprise that works best when you don’t know what is coming.
Talking around the twist, Freaks eventually become an effects laden sci-fi film centred around the simple concept of a family split apart through circumstances beyond their control. This is all sold through impressive set design and effects work that never shows more than it needs to. This reminds of another impressive small scale genre film from earlier in 2019, Headhunter, both that and Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s film take on large scale concepts and world building ideas – however, they both evade the usual pitfalls of low-budget indie films by putting every last penny on screen in a controlled manner. Why include footage or establishing shots that questions the legitimacy of the fantasy? Every shot has been considered with this in mind making for a magnificently economical use of space, the canvas the film paints upon feels much larger scale than it actually is.
For all this talk of fantasy, effects and world building, this is ostensibly a three-hander with Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern and newcomer Lexy Kolker. It’s almost redundant to say that Bruce Dern is excellent, he is, after all, one of the most consistently under-rated actors of the past 40 years. The other two, though, are much more surprising. Once upon a time, Hirsch was acting wallpaper – a young face that appeared in films but never really rocked the boat, as such he faded into the background. That may because he never had the right opportunity it may be because he has only truly found his acting voice in the past few years. Ever since his terrified turn in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe he has become a much more accomplished, stand-out actor. As father you could basically recite all the praise that Brie Larsson received for her role in Room and attribute it to Hirsch, the emotion and passion he taps into to create this character who is defined by protecting their child makes for a very sympathetic soul – even when you think he may have kidnapped his daughter. As good as he is, the real star is child actor Lexy Kolker. I don’t know what direction the director duo gave her, but how she taps into the wonder of what is happening whilst simultaneously being both confused and angry is a incredibly impressive feat. If her role was miscast, Freaks would be a mess fronted by a rather direct allegory. Being as good as she is, the film becomes a compelling fantastical character drama that has cult favourite scrawled all over it.
Freaks debuted in the UK at Glasgow FrightFest 2019 and once again in August at their London event. And for you American’s reading, the film is playing now at selected cinemas nationwide. Wherever you find yourself in the world though, please do seek out this film as it beautifully shows that there is more to independent genre than a dunderheaded, one dimensional deification of the 1980s.