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Addicted to Fear, or Why I Am a Horror Junkie

It’s Halloween. The best holiday of the year. So I’d like to wax autobiographical for a minute here, and talk about my own personal relationship with the horror genre. If you’ve spent any time peeking around Pussy Goes Grrr, you know that Ashley and I are horror junkies. We crave all the neurochemical releases that accompany a good scary movie; few experiences thrill us more than discovering an new, bold horror masterpiece that scares our socks off. But, you may ask, where did this cinematic bloodlust come from? What childhood disease did we acquire that made us seek out things that scare us? If Andreas is so terrified of insects (it’s true!), why the hell would he intentionally watch any iteration of The Fly?

The answers, of course, are long and complex. I don’t even know all of them. Where do any artistic preferences come from? How do you account for any taste? But I would like to talk about a few childhood experiences that probably contributed to my critical idiosyncrasies. You see, a lot of my cinephilia stems from the kind of family I grew up in. When I was in elementary school, a common family activity was indulging in a VHS of some Universal horror, or a 1950s Vincent Price vehicle, or something bad like Plan 9. (My childhood arrived at the tail end of the VHS-and-video-store era, so despite being born in 1990, I still get to be nostalgic for their distinctively analog delights.)

As you can probably tell, my family’s viewing choices hewed to older fare, so I was inculcated into a very specific kind of old-fashioned horror fandom. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and even George Romero didn’t mean much to me until after I started college; instead, as I grew to really appreciate scary movies, it was all about Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and other such pioneers. But before my understanding of film became that sophisticated or auteur-centric, it was all about the images. That’s what I’m really here to address. Iconic horror movie images became displaced in time, space, and authorship. They become universal possessions of the collective unconscious. It’s a beautiful, mysterious process.

So: when I was little, we had all these books about horror movies sitting around. My father had accumulated them over the years, maybe from bookstores or thrift stores or book sales or forever. I still have the cover of John Stanley’s Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide burnt somewhere inside my brain. The books’ titles consisted of every possible permutation of the words “scary,” “horror,” “movie,”  and “guide.” Maybe, on occasion, “flicks” or “encyclopedia” would worm their ways into the titling algorithm. For the most part, they were generic compilations of short reviews, cast listings, and black-and-white stills. These stills were really the selling points: they were one-frame money shots, showing off the most hypnotic, gruesome artistry the movie had to offer.

They were also one of my first exposures to horror’s perverse, forbidden, slightly erotic pleasures. Horror movies showed me deformed faces, exaggerated bodies, and every other conceivable mutilation of the human form – all with a strangely sexualized twist. Even though all of pre-1968 cinema was supposed to be clean and safe for kids’ enjoyment, it actually contained festering, potent traces of sensual yearning and sinful desire. And, in its own illicit way, this unspoken aspect of horror was also very educational. I’m an outspoken advocate for the (usually) secret-but-pervasive sexual side of horror, and it’s partially because as I reflect on my childhood, I realize how profoundly it influenced me as a person.

Here are a few of those images. They’ve all taken on curious, shadowy lives of their own in the mind of pop culture. They’ve all acquired a set of meanings and associations in the years since they were created. And they all have strange and powerful significances to me as an individual.

There is so much I could say about Bela Lugosi in Dracula. It’s the role that defined his career, and the film set the stage for every horror talkie that followed it. It also codified the image of an aristocratic, caped vampire. It has enormous resonance for me – in fact, resonance above and beyond almost all other horror movies. I can’t help it. It’s not because of how well it’s made; that’s a nonissue with Tod Browning films, and there have been far better adaptations of the source novel. (Like, say, both versions of Nosferatu.) Maybe it’s some combination of the dilapidated castle, the Karl Freund camerawork, and Lugosi’s body language that drilled this movie into my brain. Despite his classical training, Lugosi always looked like such an outsider in American movies. Maybe the inherent pathos and tragedy of the Lugosi persona struck me through this movie. I couldn’t say.

This remains, I think, one of the most inexplicably compelling, mystifying, and disgusting images in all of film. Even going beyond Freaks‘ moralizing showmanship, just trying to look at it rationally… all logic fails when applied to this image. It appeals to something deeper than logic. This might be what draws me so forcefully to Tod Browning: even though his films are often nonsensical, amateurish, and tawdry, they nonetheless get to something in the bestial recesses of the human mind. Cleopatra’s incomprehensible, dehumanizing fate is so psychosexually loaded, because a “beautiful” woman has been forcibly and maliciously transformed into a voiceless, ambiguous being. It’s all intensified by the real question: how did the freaks do this?

I saw Janet Leigh’s screaming face years before I ever saw Psycho. Like the image of Freaks, it depicts a woman’s body being mutilated; it’s explicitly sexualized violence. But it’s also laden with intertwining threads of meaning. It’s not just an expression of unadulterated misogyny. (Those who pelt the horror genre with tired accusations of unadulterated misogyny are really underestimating the depth of these films. Although, of course, some horror movies are full of straightforward misogyny.) Consider part of Carol Clover’s argument in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: in a slasher film, the viewer is constantly shifted in identification between the attacker and the victim. It’s not just that we see ourselves in Mrs. Bates as she hacks into Marion, because we also see ourselves in the dying, shrieking Marion. It’s about fear and vulnerability. It’s about gender anxieties and sexual curiosity.

This is just a little hint of why I love horror so much, but the main reason is that I love to be scared. Yes, it’s perverse (in the truest sense of the word) and yes, it’s very counterintuitive. But fear is important and it can be useful. By watching something that scares you, you can learn more about yourself and your relationship to the world around you. I believe that for several reasons – industrial, aesthetic, and otherwise – horror is also sometimes capable of saying more than other genres. In short, I love horror movies. Happy Halloween.

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20 Horror Faves

Way back when, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl requested that all the horror-loving folks out in blogland send her their 20 favorite horror movies. They responded en masse. I was part of that masse! Well, I figured, why not milk that list for some actual content? Thus, here it is: my list, in its chronological, 20-entries-long glory. It was a painful list to come up with, and I’m missing some of my other special favorites, but it’s decent, I think.

  • The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927): So macabre, so weird, so Freudian, so fucked-up. Also, probably Lon Chaney’s best surviving performance. (I mean, Burt Lancaster loved it!)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): The best version of Stevenson’s tale, no matter what the Victor Fleming partisans tell you. Also, Miriam Hopkins’ sexy leg [courtesy of Lolita’s Classics]:

  • Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932): Um, duh! More about this forthcoming later in the month.
  • Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934): “DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN!” Looniest, wackiest, most maniacal exploitation movie of all time.
  • Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): Whale at his gleefully perverse best. I wish Dr. Pretorious was my boyfriend!
  • Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935): Peter Lorre is a creepy fucker, plus obsession and grand guignol! I adore this movie.
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942): One of the seminal Hollywood horror movies, at once erotic, repressed, and scary as hell.
  • The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943): And another Val Lewton masterpiece! Unbelievably morbid and moodily poetic.
  • Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al., 1945): The segments are uneven, but Michael Redgrave vs. a ventriloquist dummy, together with the nightmare finale, is more than worth it. Ealing should’ve made more horror.
  • Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1959): Franju tells his really icky mad scientist story with a delightful sense of humor. Valli makes a great (evil) lab assistant, and the design of the mask is so simple as to be nightmare-inducing.
  • Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962): This is easily in the top 5 on this list. Independently made with an unblinking vision of existential horror, it also has one-time actress Candace Hilligoss giving the performance of a lifetime. “WHY CAN’T ANYBODY HEAR ME?”
  • The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963): I fucking love Julie Harris here; she leads a pretty much perfect cast as they navigate the recesses of a very angry house.
  • Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964): I talked about this recently, but to recap: it’s a brutal tale of two women and a man in the wilderness, with a big hole in the middle. So greasy and desperate, I love it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968): It’s a pretty canonical choice. Romero was a true original, resourcefully squeezing all the metaphorical value he could out of a solid cast, a boarded-up house, and some brain-craving zombies.
  • Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1973): SO DEPRESSING. Watching this movie is like masturbating with a shard of broken glass. OK, I’m done drawing analogies now. But seriously, Bergman turns family drama into ultra-visceral horror.
  • The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976): The underrated third member of Polanski’s Apartment trilogy, it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s Trelkovsky’s miserably kafkaesque relationship with his neighbors, or him wearing a dress and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant!”
  • The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982): When Poe wrote the words “desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,” I think he was anticipating the lingering dread and scary-as-shit special effects of Carpenter’s masterpiece.

  • Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988): I wish Jeremy Irons were my drug-addicted gynecologist brother. But then I’d have to be Jeremy Irons. Also, mutant vaginas. What’s not to love?
  • 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2003): I wasn’t expecting it, but Boyle’s neo-zombie odyssey across postapocalyptic England has insinuated itself into my bloodstream like a particularly pernicious virus.
  • Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008): Aren’t those kids cute? And isn’t that movie startlingly beautiful and well-written?

Are you shocked by my bad taste? Or shocked by my good taste? Comment below.

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The tragedy of lost films (and what you can do)

This is kind of last minute, but I very quickly want to give as much support and gratitude as I can to the wonderful folks who are currently running the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn of Ferdy on Films. The blogathon is nearly over, and I’ve sadly been kept from posting anything by the stresses of 7th week, but I can’t overemphasize how noble and important of a project this is. The purpose of “For the Love of Film” is to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose raison d’etre is pretty much right there in its name. (I’ve dreamed of volunteering for the NFPF for years, but Minneapolis isn’t exactly a Mecca of film preservation.)

Imagine that you’re Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” You’re the last person on earth, and you’ve got all of mankind’s collected work at your fingertips. Let’s say your glasses didn’t break. But what if the library started on fire? Would you do whatever it took to get a fire extinguisher or a hose, anything, to quench the flames? OK, this may be a strained analogy, but my point is that film preservation is essential to preserving our collective identity.

Film is such a young art, but already it’s produced so many sublime and beautiful masterpieces, works which literally improve us as human beings and the world we live in. Yet tragically, this hasn’t always been acknowledged: during the days of the Hollywood studio system, for example, before the public even knew of such a thing as “art cinema,” filmmaking was regarded first and foremost as an industry. This is how Thomas Edison treated it, and this is how it was viewed by the men who controlled it over the following decades. At that historical moment, despite the fact that Hollywood was exporting countless great works of art, film just hadn’t acquired the necessary approval from the broader artistic and intellectual communities.

Granted, I’m oversimplifying a little, but I’m trying to hastily spell out some of the reasons why film preservation is so very fundamental. Because it was this dominant attitude toward film as nothing but a transient form of entertainment that helped lead to the ongoing crisis we face as cinephiles. Our cultural heritage is literally decomposing. Imagine (yes, more hypotheticals) if you learned that a vault somewhere in Vienna contained thousands of pages of sheet music, with a few lost Mozart symphonies in there somewhere, and the paper was slowly rotting away, so that much of the music was already unreadable. Would you be a little concerned? I can’t overstate the gravity of this situation.

Already, so much – far too much – has been lost. If you want to make me cry, force me to peruse a list of lost films; it’s like gazing over a memorial to lost lives, experiences, sacrifices. Just think about Theda Bara, the beguiling, vampy sex symbol of early silent cinema. Her very image is intriguing, she’s one of the first true movie stars, but out of her whole prolific career, only four feature films remain; barring an archival miracle, no one will ever see her legendary Cleopatra in its entirety. I want to see Cleopatra. I can’t, because it hasn’t been preserved. Donating to the NFPF at least ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the films of other silent starlets.

I’ll mention a few other tragic losses, cautionary tales about the fragility of film: consider Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), an expansive masterpiece of intense psychological realism. Of course, we’ll never see the whole thing, because some janitor decided to throw away a huge amount of its running time. This is just a sample of how one person’s brief carelessness can harm all of humanity; the NFPF works to overcome the effects of individual carelessness. (Luckily, janitors have redeemed themselves, since legend says that one recovered Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in a Norwegian insane asylum.)

Another classic example of negligence depriving us of great filmmaking is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. A failure when first released, RKO’s apathy toward it eventually led to about an hour of footage being irretrievably lost. As it is, Ambersons feels so potent, so full of the same layered storytelling that defined Citizen Kane, with great performances from Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Agnes Moorhead – what could that extra hour have added? How would it have changed our perception of Welles’ talent?

(It’s worth noting that a couple months ago, I had a conversation with my advisor, a Cinema and Media Studies professor, in which he happened to mention, “I was in Madison recently and ran into David Bordwell, and we happened to talk about The Magnificent Ambersons…” to my quiet awe.)

It’s so frustrating; it’s as if James Joyce had, in his fit of rage, thrown the manuscript of Ulysses into the fireplace, and then Nora hadn’t rushed to salvage it. Except in this case, it’s all thanks to the studio’s short-sightedness and penny-pinching. This also counts as a great lesson for anyone in any period of history: don’t pretend to know what will or will not end up being historically important. Rash actions, based on hubris like that, has lost us so many would-be classics, ones that never lived to see the light of the present day.

I can’t talk about lost films without touching on the holy grail, perhaps the most desired and most sorely missed film out there, and one to which I feel a personal connection: Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). How many times as a child was I entranced by photos of Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Man in the Beaver Hat; how many times did I contort my face in an attempt to mimic his? Sure, as with Greed, there’s a reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin (whose work I admire), but it’s just not the same. The reconstruction gives an outline of what London After Midnight may have been like. But I can never experience firsthand chills from seeing Chaney’s pseudo-vampire in motion, the essence of cinema (La Jetée notwithstanding).

We’re fighting a war. It’s a war against time, fire, mold, decay, and apathy. It’s a war against lack of funds and space. Think of these lost films as a few of the higher-profile casualties over the years, though rest assured, there are thousands and thousands more. If you want to learn more about some of the success stories of film preservation, and the endless tally of losses, look around at the lists on the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. You can find out all about the technical reasons that films decay (an area where I’m pretty lost myself), as well as great film preservationists, porn preservation, and so much more. These collected posts are an amazing accomplishment, providing glances into areas of film history that are usually off limits to all but the most dedicated researchers. To everyone involved: thank you!

(Also, DONATE to the NFPF!)

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My Favorite Movies: Freaks

Olga Baclanova becomes the "Feathered Hen"

I was recently inspired (largely by Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series) to start a weekly series of posts devoted to what constitute “my favorite movies.” This is a multi-purpose idea: to probe into why, exactly, I consider these movies my favorites; to explore the difference between personal taste and objective quality; and to just see how much I can extract meaningwise from the movies in question. I’ve jotted down a little list of possibilities to start from, but I plan it to be pretty fluid and, like Ebert’s series, a “collection” rather than an limited or exclusive list of any kind.

And so, I figured, what better movie to start out with than one that’s much-beloved by myself and others, but generally neglected in official “best ever” lists, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)? I first encountered the film maybe 5-6 years ago (on TCM, of course), launching me into an obsession with Browning’s work. I’d long been familiar with Dracula (1931), but soon watched collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. like The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). While Freaks may not be as culturally omnipresent as Dracula nor as emotionally focused as The Unknown, it’s nonetheless a totally one of a kind film and probably, in the end, Browning’s most notorious.

Freaks occupies several interesting borderlands. It’s a mix of narrative (a romance/revenge storyline) and spectacle, tapping into the average viewer’s anthropological voyeurism. I’d compare it to Tabu, which was made one year earlier by master of melodrama F.W. Murnau and pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, in the way it drapes spectatorship into foreign lifestyles around a fairly simple plot. It also sits in the space between mainstream Hollywood productions and exploitation cinema: produced by MGM (and originally slated to star Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), it nonetheless has more in common – in terms of subject matter and presentation with its low-budget, independent brethren than it does with, say, Grand Hotel. One sign of this affiliation is the fact that Freaks was exhibited nationwide by Dwain Esper (director of Sex Madness, among others) in the years after it was roundly condemned by mainstream authorities.

The title screen of Freaks

Indeed, when it came out, Freaks received as vicious a response as The Rite of Spring or L’Âge d’or: people fainted, shrieked, even miscarried, and Browning’s career was pretty much ended (though he did manage to direct two more horror classics, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll). All of this just added to its reputation when, 30 or so years later, Freaks was revived as one of the original, most-appreciated cult films, which is where it sits today. So why the uproar and outrage? Maybe the clearest reason is this: Freaks is nothing if not transgressive. The title itself suggests that everything about the movie is outside the norm, and vehemently different. It’s a movie intended to shock and surprise as much as anything out of exploitation or John Waters; you can see it even in the carnival barker’s introduction. Superficially, he’s referring to the deformed Cleopatra, but ultimately, he’s talking about the movie as a whole.

So what kinds of difference, transgression, and line-crossing do we have in Freaks? First, there’s Hans, the midget, who loves the “big woman,” Cleopatra, setting up the film’s main conflict. There’s the freak community existing within a world that rejects them. A Frenchman condemns a group of young freaks as “monsters” even as Madame Tetrallini, herself physically normal, defends and mothers them. Repeatedly, the film bumps up against a fear of physical abnormality, and a fear of compromising bodily integrity – a current that runs throughout pretty much of all of western horror fiction, from Frankenstein to Lon Chaney, from the career of David Cronenberg to a large number of urban legends, and more. It’s a fear that serves as Freaks‘ main subject, making the film both in your face and ahead of its time, a forefather of the body horror subgenre.

An easy way to discuss the film’s encounters with difference might be to look at all the heterosexual pairings that populate it: there’s Hans and Frieda, the midgets who are a romantic couple here, despite being played by Harry and Daisy Earles, real-life siblings. Hans loves Cleopatra, the beautiful acrobat, who is conspiring and making love behind Hans’ back with Hercules, the strongman. I see Cleopatra and Hercules, with their mythological namesakes, as being just as freakish as Hans and Frieda – but instead of having “not enough” (i.e., in terms of height), they have “too much”: they are the super- woman and man, on display because of their excess of feminine and masculine qualities. A third couple is seen in Phroso and Venus, both played by recognizable MGM character actors (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams), who are the film’s representations of physical normality, yet tolerant of the abnormality that surrounds them.

"A loving cup!"

Other couples abound in the periphery: we see Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf) and Frances O’Connor (the armless girl) eating together in a trailer; the stuttering, emasculated Roscoe married to Daisy, a Siamese twin; and the bearded woman and the human skeleton, who have a child together. In a very interesting twist on this pattern, the film has Josephine Joseph, ostensibly half-man and half-woman, split right down the middle. S/he brings to my mind the theory espoused by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium of a world originally populated by four-legged, four-armed creatures who were broken apart into two-person heterosexual couples. In one of the film’s many perverse subplots, Josephine Joseph is a couple unto him/herself – s/he hits on Hercules, only to be rejected, and later gazes on in sexual frustration as Hercules embraces Cleopatra. It’s symptomatic of the film’s many ambivalences that one minor character finds him/herself inherently crossing gender boundaries.

Freaks, then, brings the viewer across one line after another through its characters, many of whom are uncategorizable both in physical and sexual terms. (Another example is Schlitze, a male pinhead who is dressed and referred to as female.) The prejudice they face from the “normal” world makes the film, I think, a very durable metaphor: the impossibility of a freak/normal marriage between Hans and Cleopatra echoes miscegenation fears, and on a broader level the film’s conflict can apply to anyone who has ever felt rejected or dehumanized for any reason, just as the film itself was rejected upon first release. Like the freak shows it depicts (although curiously, only fractions of any performances are ever seen) and like the exploitation cinema that claimed it, Freaks has always been sideshow (or underground) entertainment smelling of sawdust and spilled beer. This lack of respectability, coupled with the film’s insistence on transgression, gives it much of its cult credibility. (What’s cool about seeing a movie “they” are encouraging you to see? Incidentally, Freaks was banned for decades, like A Clockwork Orange, in England.)

Thus, Freaks itself as a film manages to match the “forbidden” qualities of its own subject matter – a depiction of taboo violations becomes a taboo in itself. I’m sure semiotics could have a field day with that. Just mentioning Freaks is a sign of outsider qualities, as with the Ramones’ “We accept her! We accept her!” in the song “Pinhead,” or Bill Griffith’s long-running, enigmatic comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead.” (There’s just something about being a pinhead, it appears, that succinctly signifies exclusion in a way that “dwarf” or “legless boy” doesn’t.) I think it’d be worthwhile to examine in some more depth the infamous “Wedding Feast” scene.

It’s strange that, although generally considered a horror film, Freaks contains little explicit horror beyond the physical identities of its actors. However, everything about the wedding feast is so bizarre and so foreign that it constitutes “horror” just as much as any violent assault or intrusion of the supernatural. While the human skeleton plays no particular tune on the harmonica (creating a strange but merrily circus-appropriate backdrop), two otherwise absent characters demonstrate sword-swallowing and fire-eating, which amounts to a pair of filmed circus performances. Then, under the leadership of Angeleno the dwarf, the freaks prepare Cleopatra “a loving cup”: an enormous goblet of champagne from which one freak after another drinks in succession; meanwhile, Josephine Joseph and others strike up a surreal refrain of “We accept her, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us…” What makes this most effective as horror, I think, is how naturally the freaks join into the nonsense verse “gooble gobble.” Consider an earlier exchange between Angeleno and Frances O’Connor, the armless girl, with regard to Cleopatra:

Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.

Frances: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out.

All of these subtle hints at the extremity of the freaks’ sense of togetherness are, of course, proven true in the grisly climax, and they suggest something the movie never shows us outright – the unwritten, unspoken code of the freaks and their concealed knowledge that an attack on one of them will be treated as an attack on all. In this regard, the wedding feast is an inversion of the climax; together, the two rituals show the family of freaks while at the heights of celebration and at the depths of revenge.

Freaks is a roughly-made movie, I admit. It stars professional performers, but they often fail as actors, as with the living torso Prince Randian’s single but inaudible line, “Is there anything I can do in the act, bro?” The editing is patchy, some scenes go on too long, and the movie’s been through so many versions in its storied history that it’s hard to identify a definitive version. (E.g., some have a tacked-on prologue, while others have a tacked-on ending.) But as with much of Browning’s career, the way the material is presented is subservient to what‘s being presented: an ensemble cast full of genuine physical abnormality. Freaks‘ sheer audacity is what lets it live on in infamy while most of the more-accepted films of 1932 have since been forgotten. Carefully treading the line between understanding and exploiting, it’s compelling and enjoyable in its violations of our basic beliefs about the human form. And the fear inspired by this violation makes it a horror classic. Positioned brazenly on the outside of everything, Freaks is one of my favorite movies.

"Offend one, and you offend them all."

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