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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 7: Freaks (1932)

freaksDirector: Tod Browning
Writer: Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon, suggested by the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton

Plot: Filmed with circus performers rather than professional actors, this film smacks of classic Greek tragedy. A circus midget named Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). The other circus performers discover she only wishes to marry him for an inheritance that’s waiting for him, and decide to seek retribution for their friend in a horrific fashion.

Thoughts: This is one of those films whose name I’ve always heard whispered, but didn’t really know much about. For that matter, I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s actually seen it. But the fact that everyone seems to know about it definitely suggests that it’s worth delving into for this little project of mine. As it turns out, it’s one of those movies responsible for stuff that’s become so pervasive that people don’t even know the origins of it anymore. (Check out the initiation scene – suddenly you’ll start to get pop culture references you never understood before.)

The structure of the film is fantastic, beginning with a carnival barker leading a crowd of onlookers to some horrifying (but yet unseen) exhibit, then cutting away to the main story. Hans is already engaged to another performer, Frieda (Daisy Earles), and initially denies that he is infatuated with the lovely Cleopatra. Cleo is already involved with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor), and with him hatches the scheme to bilk Hans out of his money.

This is one of those films that’s particularly difficult to judge, thanks to the prism of modern experience. My own gut reaction is surprise at how the story is pieced together. Although the characters, the titular “freaks,” aren’t necessarily brilliant actors, I’m intrigued at how human their depiction is. Although there are a few things played for laughs (a stutter, for example) that would seem cruel today, many of the freaks are shown displaying very normal emotion and desires, which I find surprising in a film made in 1932. I’m not sure that’s really fair of me, though. I don’t know exactly what the expected reaction would have been at the time. Certainly, we tend to think of a period nearly 80 years ago as being a less permissive, less inclusive time period, but is that the same thing as saying that a 1932 audience would have expected a group of circus sideshow performers to be less than human? Just because they were alive in the 30s? Seems rather intolerant of me, doesn’t it?

One thing that’s undeniable is that director Tod Browning – who also directed Dracula and several silent films starring Lon Chaney – places his allegiances firmly with the freaks. The members of the circus sideshow have a code of conduct and honor, particularly when it comes to how “normal” people interact with their clan of outsiders. Those “normal” people – Cleopatra and Hercules in particular – are the real monsters of the film. The horror doesn’t originate with the abnormal in this movie, but from the way ordinary people choose to treat those they view as less than human. The freaks do wind up doing some pretty nasty things, but in retaliation. Cleopatra attempts to slowly poison Hans, but with the help of his friends he grows wise to her scheme and, together, they find a grotesque retribution. Overkill, perhaps, but it’s hard to feel bad for their victim, whose own actions were just as damning emotionally as any physical torment she was put through.

The final scenes, admittedly, are hard to watch. One of the few sympathetic “normals” – a circus clown – is shoved against a burning stove by Hercules as he tries to defend Hans. Of course, what happens to ol’ Herc makes any injuries the clown gets seem almost bearable by comparison. As for Cleopatra herself, we see her flee just before we go back to the barker from the beginning of the film and see the end result of Cleopatra’s greed, a poetic justice imposed by the freaks.

Browning, from what I’ve learned, actually grew up working in a circus, so it’s quite possible that the things he saw and experienced at the time influenced this film greatly. Sadly, it seems the film influenced his career in a negative way. Audiences at the time were so horrified by it that his booming career fizzled, and he only directed four more films in his life, two of them uncredited – having directed sixty-seven previously. (And I doubt it was a question of just easing into retirement – he lived until 1962, 23 years after his final film, Miracles For Sale.) Were people that horrified? Did they find the film that threatening? One woman even sued Browning, claiming the film shocked her into having a miscarriage… not because of the human horror of the things Cleopatra did, but because of the shock of seeing the freaks in action. The film was actually changed several times, toning down some of the final scenes, cutting out nearly 30 minutes of footage (the final film’s running time is a brisk and all-too-brief 62 minutes) and grafting a happier ending that very, very much feels tacked-on. Had they left things with Cleopatra’s fate, it would have been a gut-wrenching final image that would linger with you. Instead, they drift back to Hans and Frieda one last time, evidently attempting to give the audiences some sort of good vibe to go out on. But this isn’t a movie that really suits a “good vibe.” It’s about horrible people and the horrible things they do, and leaving it on an up note weakens it.

Should you happen to get your hands on the DVD, make sure to watch the alternate endings. It’s more powerful, and considerably creepier.

We’re leaving the 1930s behind now, leaping forward in time. Join me tomorrow as we travel to 1942, and the horror classic The Cat People.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 6: The Mummy (1932)

mummyDirector: Karl Freund
Writer: John L. Balderston
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan

Plot: While uncovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, an archeologist accidentally resurrects the priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff). Imhotep flees, and returns ten years later posing as a modern Egyptian and seeking a way to bring back his lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. He meets a woman (Zita Johann) he believes to be the reincarnation of his love, and attempts to reawaken within her the memory of their past, leading to a terrifying final confrontation.

Thoughts: Now this is interesting. I admit, this is my first time watching the original, 1932 version of The Mummy, although I was a fan of Stephen Sommers’ remake in 1999. However, I’d always assumed that the 1999 version was one of those sequels in name only, just an attempt by Universal to jumpstart a long-dead franchise in a modern way. Watching the original, I’m surprised to see just how much of the original film actually made it into Sommers’ version. The mummy, Imhotep, was cursed in both for similar crimes (love of/attempting to resurrect a forbidden princess). Also, in both versions the mummy is resurrected by accident (not really a surprise there, who would do it on purpose?), and finds a woman he believes to be his ancient lover, and thus attempts to bring her back to him.

The difference, of course, is in scale. By 1999, special effects had progressed considerably, so instead of a mummy that basically did his work by walking around and creeping everybody the hell out, we had Arnold Vosloo, who morphed from a wet, gushy corpse into… well… Arnold Vosloo, and at the same time had the power to whip up sandstorms that looked like his face. The remake is far more of an action movie than a horror movie, but I think you can attribute that to the fact that these old Universal Monsters aren’t really considered anything to be afraid of. They’ve become beloved icons of creepiness, but aren’t actually creepy anymore. They’re instantly recognizable Halloween costumes, and cartoons that sell us breakfast cereal.

At least… the iconic image of the mummy has become that. This is what’s interesting to me. When you think of a horror movie mummy in your head, you conjure up that immediate image of a desiccated corpse wrapped up in gauze or, if your parents didn’t make it to the store until 6:30 in the afternoon on October 31st, toilet paper. But Boris Karloff only appears in that particular mummy form for a scant few minutes at the beginning of the film. When he turns up again after the ten-year lapse, he looks more or less human. Old, kind of leathery, like he’s been out in the sun for a hell of a long time, but not the mystical monster he actually is. His power is internalized, and you don’t really get a sense of him being a creature of the undead until his destruction at the end, when the goddess Isis ages him instantly and he drops dead.

David Manners, who I found rather dull and lifeless in Dracula, returns to again be rather dull and lifeless here. I’m not really sure what to make of this, why in all these old-school horror films it seemed like an attempt was made to make the ostensible hero as boring as possible. Manners really does nothing in the film. He’s there to give Zita Johann’s character a love interest, but he doesn’t come to the rescue, he doesn’t get her into the trouble in the first place in any meaningful way… he simply doesn’t need to be there. By the 80s, of course, it wouldn’t matter. You’d have a thousand slasher flicks where the audience no longer really needs to identify with the supposed protagonist, and instead is really pulling for the monster, waiting to see how many kills he can rack up and how creative the filmmakers can be in throwing blood at the screen. The other characters are placeholders until they get killed, except for the final survivor – usually a teenager girl. She may survive with her boyfriend, who will be easily identified as he’ll be the only male in the movie who isn’t a complete douchenozzle.

But in 1932 that wasn’t the case. Karloff was supposed to be the bad guy, Manners was supposed to be the good guy, and the good guy was just plain dull. Karloff steals the show entirely, and while his comeuppance at the end is inevitable, it’s really hard not to wish that he had at least managed to take out David Manners on his way out.

1932 was a big year for horror, as it turned out. Next up will be one of the most controversial films of the time – and honestly, it’s still controversial today. It’s time to get into Freaks.