Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) (1932)

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) – 1932

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel

When I think of a good vampire story, I think of the grotesque, deformed creature typified by Max Schreck in Nosferatu.  I think of Bela Lugosi’s suave and seductive Count Dracula from the aptly named Dracula.  Hell, I even think of Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Winter as the perpetual, rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers in Lost Boys.  One thing I do not think of, despite it’s clever title, is Vampyr the nearly silent horror story from cinema pioneer Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Firstly, Vampyr is a vampire story in the loosest of terms.  There is an evil, in the form of a person, or people, terrorizing a small, eastern european village.  About halfway through the movie, mention is made of a young woman with a wound on her neck who is acting as if possessed.  It is there that the similarities end.

Now despite it not really being true to the vampire angle, the film does have its moments of creepy, skin crawling ingenuity.  Dreyer’s use of subtle editing tricks to make the shadows come alive pack quite a punch both visually, and in the scare department.  Ghostly shadow figures go about their business against walls, reflected in water, and along the ground, while our main character stares in disbelief.  These effects are used so often in fact that it is more accurate to call the film Shadowpyr than Vampyr.  It is unfortunate for the film, however, that this aspect of the story wasn’t explored further than just as creepy visuals.

Earlier I mentioned that this film was nearly silent, this is because when the film was produced it was still the early days of sound and not much was done other than the occasional section of dialogue or stray sound effect.  In a way, this lack of sound really helps the sections of the film dealing with the shadows.  It seems strange and off somewhat that we are unable to hear the shadow with a peg leg ascend the ladder, or the shadowy gravedigger digging a grave.  All the sections not utilizing the lack of sound in this way are left wanting.  The dialogue is rather garbled and mumbly and doesn’t seem to match up with the actor who is supposedly speaking the line.  This is partially because it is in a language I don’t understand, but it also helped along by the fact that there are title cards with the dialogue even though the film has sound.

By and large this was an interesting film.  Some of the visuals were very disturbing and effective, but this seems more like a footnote in cinema history rather than a benchmark.  Good, but not nearly as good as the director’s earlier work, and if you’re interested in that, start with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  If you want a good movie about vampires, try Let The Right One In, or one of the films I mentioned earlier.

Dracula (1931)

Dracula 1931

Dracula – 1931

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan

Dracula is one of those movies where almost everyone knows something about it even if they haven’t seen it.  Most people are familiar with the myth of Dracula, and parodies, remakes, and variations of the original story are everywhere.  It is this fact that may have caused me to lower my expectations before seeing it.  Like with a lot of the movies on this list of 1000 I sort of mentally rolled my eyes, sighed and told myself to muscle through it anyway.  Hopefully the other movies that I have already discounted just for being part of the movie going lexicon will impress me as much as Tod Browning’s Dracula did, and I’ll have to eat my words (or in most cases thoughts).

The movie opens in a gloomy eastern European village, where all the people are superstitious and fearful.  The “civilized” Londoner, Renfield, simply shakes his head and has the carriage driver take him on to the castle of Count Dracula (which brings up an interesting note:  how did Dracula get to be considered a count.  Was he, a long time ago when he was still alive, royalty?  Did the villagers simply grant him that title out of their fear of him?  Was this some sort of commentary on the upper class system in Eastern Europe, or Europe in general?  I would have to say that if, in today’s day and age, there were this incredibly rich person who everyone suspected had supernatural powers and drank the blood of the living, we wouldn’t give them royal titles.  I hope not at any rate.  I, personally would stick to monikers like “monster”, or “that fuckin’ guy who killed all those people and drank their blood.”  Anyway, back on point…).

It is at this point that the real strength of this movie begins.  Like the entire horror genre, this movie provides some dazzling imagery.  The juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort, luxury and decay is fantastic.  Count Dracula’s castle, and later on the ruined abbey he buys in London, are at first glance voluminous and empty, but give the impression that they are crawling with cold, alien life.  These canted angles and use of foreshortening are lifted directly from German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu (although the imagry wasn’t the only thing borrowed from Nosferatu).  The black and white film stock does a service to the film by amplifying the effectiveness of the dark areas and the light areas of the film, increasing the safety you feel in the light and the danger you feel in the dark.  You can see the influence the high key lighting had on the 40s and 50 detective films (for those who don’t know, high key lighting is a very high contrast way of lighting in movies.  Brighter whites, darker darks, and less in-betweens.  Think film noir or these early horror movies.)

The rest of the story of Dracula wasn’t that much different than I had seen in other versions of the story, and as such, I won’t spend that much time on talking about it.  It is essentially a vehicle for a making something that seems reliable and safe, scary and terrifying.   Dracula, a well mannered and civilized individual makes his way to a populated area, and causes death and mayhem until someone figures him out and moves to destroy him.

The acting, while more typical of the movies of the day, seems stilted and halting by today’s standards.  By 15 minutes into the movie, however, I was used to it and it was no longer an issue.  When all was said and done, I would actually credit the pace of the movie with giving it a creepier feel than if people were saying these lines in a more straight forward cadence.  There is something about the eerie stare and slow manner of speaking that gives Bela Lugosi’s performance a little bit of bite, pun completely intended.

Dracula does feel old, and doesn’t quite have the resonance it may have had if I had seen it when I was young (Freddy Krueger, and Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown from It have that honor), but it certainly paved the way for the movies that did have that impact on the young me.

“Fun fact: Young Bela Lugosi looks like young Lou Diamond Phillips” – Ashley