Making its UK debut at the Glasgow Film Theatre, Freaks is a horror film that offers surprises and a fresh take on the overloaded genre. The film is focused on father (Emile Hirsch) and daughter (Lexy Kolker), secluded in a boarded up, post-apocalyptic-style house, afraid of the outside world. Unexpected touches are thrown in quickly, though – the father’s bizarre bleeding eye and the ‘ghost’ of a mother living in daughter Chloe’s closet – which elevate the film to a more cerebral place. The naturalistic camerawork is effective immediately, creating the idea that a real family is being documented here, and this is bolstered by a strong paternal turn from Hirsch and an outstanding performance from nine year-old Kolker.
The narrative stance focuses on Chloe’s perspective, exaggerating the sense of naivety and mystery. We feel that the lines between reality and illusion are being distorted, but soon, clues and fragments fall into place and the audience can satisfyingly begin piecing the film-world together. Unsettlingly, it’s often the external scenes that chill the most. Chloe’s forays into the forbidden outside world of colour and light seem dreamlike and unnatural, and instead it’s the vandalised, ramshackle home that really does begin to feel like a safe space.
Humour is also injected brilliantly into the film, especially from a perfectly-cast Bruce Dern as the cranky, oddball ice cream truck driver who helps crack open the truth behind the mysterious plot. In the second half, we then veer away from horror into sci-fi territory, and the film rockets towards its climax on a thrilling race-against-time final act. Perhaps, at this point, more predictable elements come into play, and hardcore horror fans may feel cheated by the film’s introduction of sci-fi tropes. The running time also stretches just a tad too far. However, the concept, holistically, is executed skilfully and ties up each of its loose ends for the finale.
Freaks uses the kind of story that a big-budget Hollywood movie could have exploited with CGI and epic production design. But this child’s eye-view is far more intriguing. Its central performances and cleverly plotted mystery hook the audience and the film manages to carve its own sub-genre-mashup niche.