She Freak was written and produced by David F. Friedman in 1967 so you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get classic 60s sexploitation or possibly classic 60s exploitation gore. If those are your expectations from this movie, then they’re dead wrong.
There are of course exploitation elements in the movie (there’d have to be with a title like that) but they’re downplayed to an extraordinary degree. This movie in fact has all the hallmarks of being a personal pet project of Friedman’s. Friedman was not the sort of guy to be involved in a movie that wasn’t going to make money but in this one instance it seems like he decided he just wanted to make a movie for himself.
Friedman’s background was in the world of the carny and it’s a world he always loved deeply. This movie is a love letter to that world.
This is, naturally, a low-budget movie but unusually for a 1967 exploitation cheapie it’s in colour which allows it to revel in the glamour of carny life.
As far as the plot is concerned it is to a large extent a remake of Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 shocker Freaks. In fact the scenes that bookend the movie exactly parallel the scenes that bookend Freaks. We start with a group of punters viewing a particularly gruesome side-show attraction, a monster that as the carny barker tells us was partly made by God and partly made by Man. Then the bulk of the movie is a flashback that tells us how this woman came to be a freak.
Jade Cochran (Claire Brennen) is a waitress in a grungy diner. She hates her job and she hates her boss. She is convinced that one day she will have all her dreams. And her dreams are all about money. When the advance man from a carnival arrives at the diner and asks to be allowed to put up a poster promoting the carnival Jade thinks she sees her chance. Compared to what she has now working in a carnival has to be an improvement. So she runs off to join the carnival.
She is befriended by a stripper who works the girlie show and she gets a job at the midway diner. She likes the carny life, except for one thing. She can’t stand the freaks. They repulse her.
It soon becomes obvious that the one thing that Jade really wants out of the life is to find the richest most eligible bachelor in the carnival and marry him. Ironically that man, Steve St John (Bill McKinney), is the man who runs the freak show. But he has lots of money and he has a big expensive car and that’s enough to hook Jade, and pretty soon Jade has hooked him. They get married. Unfortunately on a physical level the man who most attracts her is Blackie, one of the ride men. Blackie is a loser and a lowlife but he’s good-looking and sexy in a rough bad boy sort of way and Jade goes for that big time. Jade’s mistake is to think she can be married to Steve St John while still having the occasional roll in the hay with Blackie. Her even bigger mistake is to underestimate the loyalty of carny people, particularly the freaks.
If you’ve seen Freaks you know where this is headed.
While it follows the plot of Tod Browning’s classic movie rather closely She Freak cannot compare to Freaks in shock value. Of course it’s doubtful if any movie can compare to Freaks in shock value.
The actual horror doesn’t kick in until the very end of the movie, although when it does kick in it delivers its chills pretty effectively. Most of the movie though is just a story of carny life, and it views that life in the same affectionate manner that Tod Browning viewed it. Tod Browning had also started life as a carny and both he and David Friedman never lost their love for that life, and never lost their ability to see the poetry and the romance and the excitement and the camaraderie of show life.
Whether you actually enjoy the movie depends entirely on how you feel about the world of side-shows and carnivals. If you’re fascinated by that world (which I admit that I am) then you’ll love the behind-the-scenes glimpses of that world, all shot in a real travelling carnival. If that world doesn’t entrance you then you may lose patience with the very long wait until the horror begins. This is also very unusual for a David Friedman film in that there is absolutely no nudity at all.
Something Weird have released She Freak as part of a two-movie set that also includes H. G. Lewis’s A Taste of Blood. As usual with Something Weird’s offerings the transfer is limited by the quality of the source material as many of the exploitation movies of the 60s only survive in rather battered prints and in most cases the original negative is long lost. In this case they’ve found a reasonably good print and the colours are still pleasingly vivid without the fading that afflicts so many low-budget movies.
I liked this movie, but unless you’re a carny fan I’d have to be a bit hesitant about recommending it. If you are a carny fan then go for it.