Friday, April 28, 2023

Freaks vs. the Reich

The National Socialists had two weird obsessions: purity and the occult. It therefore rather follows that a group of super-heroic circus freaks would be their nemeses. Yet, an increasingly unhinged Nazi pianist has a mad dream of harnessing their powers to save the regime. That sounds like an unlikely Hail Mary scheme, but he knows Germany’s defeat is likely from his drug-induced visions of the future in Gabriele Mainetti’s dark superhero fantasy Freaks vs. the Reich (a.k.a. Freaks Out), which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

Fulvio is the wolfman, Mario is the magnetic clown, Cencio is an albino with an Aquaman-like power over bugs, and Matilde harnesses the power of electricity. She is the real deal, not like Rooney Mara in the inferior
Nightmare Alley remake. In fact, all their powers are real, but hers are potentially the most powerful. However, she has issues when it comes to using them to their fullest extent. Her conductivity also somewhat alienates her from humanity, since her touch is potentially fatal. Nevertheless, Cencio still carries a torch for her, which is also creepy, given their apparent age differences.

Nevertheless, the four circus freaks regularly dazzle audiences for old Israel’s traveling sideshow, until the war intervenes. The Germans have invaded their former Italian allies, but at this point of the war, it is not going well for either nation. Franz desperately wants to turn it around for the Reich, but he is probably lucky to be alive, considering he has six fingers on either hand, making him a freak himself. Through liberal ether-huffing, Franz has seen images of the future. As a result, he is convinced only Matilde’s powers can save the Reich.

This is probably the weirdest circus film since Alex de la Iglesia’s
The Last Circus (a.k.a. A Sad Trumpet Ballad), which Freaks also resembles in tone. It is far more macabre than most superhero movies, but that is its strength, whereas its weakness is Mainetti’s inclination to excess, especially the two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time.

Be that as it may, Mainetti and co-screenwriter Nicola Guaglianone earn a lot of points for originality, particularly for their distinctive villain, Franz. He is a sinister psychopath, but it is easy to understand how living with his conspicuous “deformity” in German society helped warp him into the monster we see in the film. Those predisposed to object the film uses him to represent the physically different should keep in mind there is also a band of war-amputee partisans in the woods, waging guerilla attacks against the Germans.

Despite their heavy makeup and extreme idiosyncrasies, Fulvio, Mario, and Cencio are all compelling characters, thanks to the work of Claudio Santamaria, Giancarlo Martini, and Pietro Castellitto. Anyone cast in a superhero or horror movie that will involve extensive prosthetics would do well to review their performances. Somewhat ironically, Matilde is the film’s least interesting personality, but young Aurora Giovinazzo really delivers her big emotional crescendo. Yet, the film’s true standout is Franz Rogowski as the tragically deranged Franz.

At times, Mainetti really rubs viewers noses in the horrors of war and the National Socialist ideology, but the big climatic battle is an amazing set piece that would not have been out of place in
Inglorious Basterds. Frankly, Marvel should hire Mainetti to do something similar in their universe, to reverse their conspicuous brand decline. Recommended for fans of cult cinema, Freaks vs. the Reich opens today (4/28) in LA at the Glendale Laemmle.