The new “Freaks” is a puzzle-box movie that should not be described so much as discovered.
Opening Friday at the Metreon, it’s an inventive, ingenious little low-budget sci-fi horror film that presents big ideas in a small arena.
At the outset, it shows a frazzled, ragged father (Emile Hirsch) and his 7-year-old daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker) sequestered in a large, ramshackle house that’s badly in need of housekeeping and has sealed windows and doors.
Chloe’s unnamed dad quizzes her on a fake identity and fictional answers to all kinds of questions, the implication being that someone, or something, may come knocking at some point, and Chloe must be prepared.
Occasionally strange things happen: Chloe experiences visions and interacts with people who aren’t there, and her father bleeds red tears from his eyes.
Chloe is not allowed leave the house, ever. This becomes problematic when she’s tempted by Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) and his ice cream truck outside their door.
Chloe does get out. From there, it’s best to let viewers curious enough to venture to this unique movie to witness the details for themselves.
Co-writers and co-directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein — both losing contestants competing for a million-dollar film development deal on the short-lived 2007 reality show “On the Lot” — make their feature debut together, proving that reality shows aren’t the most dependable arbiters of talent.
As with the best low-budget movies, the filmmakers use limitations to their advantage, building suspense even as the action stays inside the house. Cleverly, they withhold key information to tantalize, create mystery and lure viewers toward the payoff.
As it progresses, the movie opens up, with modest visual effects that won’t win any Oscars, but exemplify how effects work best to enhance a story, rather than be the main point.
“Freaks” taps into two universal themes. As the title suggests, it’s about people who don’t quite feel they belong, applying to almost everybody.
It also expands the notion to a national level, showing a world of “us versus them” where hate and ignorance are official. The movie nicely layers in a strong, and, unfortunately, quite necessary message. Slyly and satisfyingly, the filmmakers move from unexplained feelings of paranoia to revealing the big picture.
Despite a limited budget, the film doesn’t skimp on sound design, music or acting. Little Kolker gives an extraordinary, disarmingly natural, performance. And Hirsch, building on goodwill he earned in 2017’s above-average horror movie “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” is a great match, showing a parent’s frustration, exhaustion and panic.
As a cranky but terrifying old man well past caring what anyone thinks, Dern (who, like Hirsch, is also in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and in recent gems “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “The Mustang”) continues to establish himself as an indispensable character actor.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest flaw is that it shamelessly appropriates the title of Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks,” presumably assuming that the seminal cult classic has been forgotten.
But that’s an easily forgiven transgression, given how good this movie is. Worthy of more than one viewing, it also could become a cult hit. Hopefully, the title will draw in viewers interested experiencing something outside the mainstream.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Lexy Kolker, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew
Written and directed by: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes