This week 101 Films delves deep into its American Genre Film Archive range for two separate releases from the bowels of exploitation film hell. The films She Freak and The Zodiac Killer have been lovingly restored, and look better than they have any right to—you kind of wish there was an option for a restored version that lets you watch them in grainy, third-generation duped-VHS mode.
She Freak is the more disappointing of the two films, because the promise of a low-budget late ’60s rip-off/remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks is too good to be realised. It’s undeniably influenced by the 1933 film, but the lack of many “freaks” in the film is a crime. It doesn’t even really become that much like Freaks till the very rushed third act, which on paper is great, but was done so ineptly—except for the last few minutes, which is the part straight out of Browning’s film. That’s the best part of the movie for sure, but Claire Brennen’s performance as the abusive waitress- turned-carnival-owner Jade Cochran is worth a mention. You would almost swear it was an early performance from Mary Woronov, but she was off dancing with Gerard Malanga in front of The Velvet Underground at this time.
The film also suffers from far too much B-roll of carnival stuff, which was added to pad out the lacklustre story and get over that much-coveted 80-minute running time. The fuzzy ‘60s surf music gives it a pretty cool atmosphere, though.
The real autuer behind the film was its screenwriter/producer, David F. Friedman, a real-life carny who also produced some of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films, such as Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! Friedman’s classiest film was probably Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, which says all you need to know about the guy. It’s a shame his carny background didn’t translate that well into the film, but he was up front about the fact that he made bad films. Freidman once said: “I made some terrible pictures, but I don’t make any apologies for anything I’ve ever done. Nobody ever asked for their money back.”.
Next up is The Zodiac Killer, perhaps the only film ever made to lure a real-life serial killler to its premiere! The story goes that Tom Hanson came up with the film because the Zodiac Killer couldn’t possibly resist attending the premiere of a film about him. The film would end up premiering at San Francisco’s RKO Golden Gate Theatre, where patrons were asked to fill out an “I think the Zodiac kills because …” card with the chance of winning a motorcycle—but little did they know that there was a handwriting expert comparing their notes to one of the Zodiac’s letters, and there were armed goons in waiting to apprehend the Zodiac if he showed up… They failed, and the identity of the killer is unknown to this day.
The film itself is pretty bad, but it’s a bit of a riot all the same, especially since it’s 90% horseshit. The Zodiac gets a ridiculous backstory where is a postal worker, so the Zodiac is just some guy who went postal (the first of many postal-employee shootings happened in 1970, so that may have influenced the story.) The most notable postal worker-turned-killer was the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, and there is even a bonus Son of Sam exploitation movie on the disc. In this film, the father of the Zodiac is mentally ill, and the Zodiac himself is portrayed as a Satanist who lashes out at anybody who taunts him or his alter-ego! The whole thing is both really stupid and pretty amusing, with all the homophobia and misogyny you would expect from an early ’70s exploitation film. Finally, the film even starts with text that includes the following: “it’s goal is not to win commercial awards,” so you know you’ve got a real winner on your hands.
She Freak‘s extras include an archival commentary track from David F. Friedman and Something Weird founder Mike Vraney, a feature-length compilation of trailers from the Something Weird vaults, some She Freak inserts and vintage carnival midway shorts, and a promotional photo gallery. The Zodiac Killer‘s extras include a commentary track and an on-camera interview from Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick, tabloid-horror trailers from the AGFA archive, and that Son of Sam bonus film, Another Son of Sam.