It takes serious stones to appropriate a title associated with a film classic (in this case, Tod Browning’s hard-to-forget 1932 carny horror) and use it on something with no obvious connection to OG Freaks, but writer-directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein back up the choice with a terrific, unusual, impressive picture that makes great use of limited resources. Freaks stays with the POV of a tough little girl raised in seclusion, but sketches the backdrop of a near future scenario that owes a lot to Marvel comics and other franchises (Heroes, Witch Mountain, even Watchmen) built on the notion that diverse super-powered individuals (here called ‘abnormals’ politely and ‘freaks’ by the less tolerant) live among ordinary folk and have changed the world.
It opens like a crossbreed of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Logan as seven-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) lives in a dilapidated, cluttered, tape-over-the-letterbox suburban house with her jittery father Henry (Emile Hirsch). Dad schools Chloe in the details of her cover identity as ‘Eleanor’, daughter of the family who live over the road, and insists bad people outside the house want to hurt her. Chloe just wants to be normal, and to have an ice cream from the van parked outside, which is operated by the jovial but sinister Mr Snowcone (Bruce Dern). She also sometimes opens the door to the burrow-like room where she sleeps to find a chained-up woman (Amanda Crew) she thinks of as a ghost, but who might be some version of her supposedly dead mother. If she prays out loud really hard, she can make people do things for her – at first, ice cream-related. She can also semi-project herself, as if space were folded, into other places, where she can affect or even possess others – giving us the growing sense that for Harper (Ava Telek), Chloe’s chosen sister, the angelic, lonely little girl is a nightmare apparition.
Henry pops out to replenish the supplies of food – also of cash and guns – in the house, and returns with a stab-wound but no ice cream. Chloe exerts her will over him … venturing outside (breaking the claustrophobia of the first act) and getting into the ice cream truck with the strange man, who now claims to be her grandfather and happy to take her to Mommy, but also dresses up as a priest to spin a yarn to government agent Cecilia Ray (Grace Park) – any relation to Cecilia Reyes of the X-Men comics? – who uses a light-pen to check cheeks for traces of wiped-away blood, an abnormal telltale. The film doesn’t venture far from the hideout house, though Chloe’s projection abilities mean we follow crucial action taking place at quite a remove. It holds back super-power action for quite some time, dropping hints about the specific abilities Henry, Alan (Mr Snowcone) and Chloe’s mother have and how they use them. Seeded in are news items about the ten year anniversary of the destruction of Dallas and drone strikes against abnormal hide-outs, but there’s also a trick with time that cannily compresses a lot of plot and makes the father-daughter bond even stranger. Hirsch and Dern are excellent support, but the film is carried by Kolker – who is easily on a par with Dafne Keen in Logan. Affecting and engaging, Kolker’s Chloe is also a credibly whiny and obstinate kid, and even frightening when she starts being able to boss grown-ups around. Jarring, shocking moments offer glimpses of how terrifying abnormals can be. The sequel hook last shots suggest wildly unusual directions a Freaks franchise could take.