The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

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Freaks (1932)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Freaks, the infamous 1932 film by director Tod Browning, about- and starring- the disfigured performers of a circus sideshow; controversial from the moment of its release and still disturbing today, it was lambasted by critics who found it repugnant, and was quickly pulled from circulation after provoking public shock and moral outrage.  Considered an affront to decency, it was barred from exhibition in many U.S. states and in countries around the world, and effectively ended the career of a director who had been one of Hollywood’s most respected talents; nevertheless, over the ensuing decades it gained a reputation- no doubt enhanced by its lack of ready availability- and became, in the ’60s and ’70s, a cult favorite, frequently screened as a midnight movie despite the fact that many of the prohibitions against it were still in place, making it technically illegal to be shown in many states.  Its rediscovery led to a critical re-evaluation, and today (thanks to modern society’s more enlightened, less reactionary view of its subject matter) it is widely regarded as a genuine classic, a brave and truly unique piece of filmmaking and a seminal influence within the horror genre.

The story takes place entirely within the insular world of a traveling circus, focusing on the day-to-day existence and relationships of its cast- particularly the collection of malformed misfits that comprises its sideshow, which includes dwarfs and midgets, “pinheads,” conjoined twins, a legless boy, a human torso, and numerous other bizarrely-shaped and differently-abled individuals who, despite their deformities, enjoy a comfortable and seemingly pleasant existence within the rarified environment of the circus, living together in a tightly-knit community with its own sort of exclusivity- as well as its own unwritten code that governs their interaction with the outside world.  One of their number, a midget named Hans (who has recently become engaged to Frieda, another little person in the troupe), has become obsessed with the “normal” Cleopatra, the show’s new trapeze artist, an exotic beauty who indulges his attentions with flirtation and flattery; privately, however, she is only amused by his affections, making cruel fun of him with her real lover, the circus’ opportunistic strongman, Hercules.  Though warned by his fellow “freaks” that she is not sincere, Hans continues to pursue Cleopatra, eventually spurning his fiancée for her; she humors him in order to take advantage of the lavish gifts he gives her, and when she discovers that he is secretly the heir to an enormous fortune, she and Hercules decide to steal it for themselves.  She concocts a plan to marry the little man so that she can become his beneficiary, and then slowly poison him, making his death seem due to illness and allowing her to claim the money and run away with the strongman.  At their wedding feast, however, she becomes drunk, reacting with disgust when the freaks attempt to accept her as one their own and inadvertently revealing her affair with Hercules.  Though she is seemingly able to allay the suspicions of her new husband- who has grown weak from the poison she has already begun to administer- the other sideshow performers are onto her scheme, and they resolve to take matters- and justice- into their own hands.

Director Tod Browning had spent his early youth in the circus (which he had run away from his privileged family to join) where he had formed a strong connection to the specialized society of its inhabitants; when he encountered the short story, Spurs, by Tod Robbins, he immediately knew he wanted to use it as the basis for a film.  He had built an impressive career as a director of silent films, making a name for himself through his extensive collaboration with renowned horror star Lon Chaney, with whom he created a number of classic films known for not only their moody eeriness, but for their remarkable level of humanity; after continuing his success into the sound era (as the director of Dracula, the 1931 hit which made a star of Bela Lugosi), he was able to convince MGM Studios- with whom he had worked on the Chaney films- to allow him to develop a film based on Robbins’ story.  Though the studio had serious reservations, production head Irving Thalberg gave Browning his full support, even in his decision to use real sideshow performers in the film instead of actors in makeup.  Consequently, working from a screenplay that combined basic elements from the original story with the concocted plot of Cleopatra’s treachery, as well as episodes inspired by his own experiences in the circus, Browning was able to realize his dream project.

In the end, he may have wished he had not; his use of genuinely deformed actors caused an outcry from public and critics alike, who felt their presence made the film far too disturbing to watch.  Worse yet, Browning was accused of exploiting these unfortunates for his own profit, much in the way that real-life carnivals and sideshows had done for years.  Whether or not this was true, the film’s preview screenings were a disaster, with audience response so vehemently negative- and one female patron threatening to sue MGM over a miscarriage supposedly brought on by the movie- that the studio edited out 30 minutes of the most upsetting footage before its general release, leaving it with a running time scarcely over an hour.  Even with these cuts, a new prologue, and a more upbeat happy ending tacked on for good measure, Freaks was a failure at the box office; not only did it fail to make back its cost, it generated so much negative publicity for the studio that, after a short release, they pulled it from theaters and put it on the shelf- though it would later emerge in exploitative road show tours, under lurid-sounding titles such as Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes, and sometimes accompanied by such titillating underground fare as amateur films of nudist camps.  As for Browning, he was more or less blacklisted from making any more important movies, relegated to helming a few low-grade horror entries until he gave up his career in 1939, and he passed away in relative obscurity in 1962- just a few years before the resurgence of interest in classic horror films that would doubtless have restored his fame and reputation, never to see the day when a youthful counterculture would turn his greatest failure into his greatest triumph.

Calling Freaks a triumph, actually, might not be an apt description; it possesses a raw and unfinished quality that has nothing to do with the removal of so much footage (all of which is now, sadly, considered lost).  Its story is sensationalistic, more a transposition of conventional melodrama into an unfamiliar setting than a real attempt at exploring this rarely-seen world, and it capitalizes on the irrational fears of the lowest common denominator to achieve its horrific effect.  Despite these things, however, and perhaps even because of them, it has a unique power that makes it nearly as shocking today as it was 80 years ago; watching it is as difficult as it is fascinating, evoking a decided sense of seeing something you’re not supposed to see.  It’s actually very easy to understand why audiences in 1932 would react so violently to Browning’s film, unaccustomed as they were to the kind of distorted imagery of the human body that has since been portrayed onscreen.  Even today, thanks to advances in medical and nutritional science and the ready availability of pre-natal care which have made such dramatic and heartbreaking birth defects a much rarer occurrence, the sight of all these non-CG-enhanced distortions of physical humanity is more than a little unsettling. The real power of Freaks, though, is only apparent for those who can get past the deliberate gross-out factor of its surface and invest themselves in its story, the clear message of which is that true ugliness lies not in physical appearance but in the soul.  Without exception, the so-called freaks are good-natured, trusting, generous and sweet (though Hans may be blinded by desire into making some foolish choices); it is the “normals” who are the real monsters here, with Cleopatra’s gold-digging cruelty and Hercules’ brutish arrogance making them truly among the most loathsome villains in classic cinema.  Of course, it would be contrary to Browning’s message to make all of the normal characters so unpleasant; the others exhibit varying degrees of likability, in terms of their relation to the freaks, from the uncharitable but relatively benign attitudes of the circus’ tumblers (a decidedly non-athletic-looking pair, incidentally, to be holding such a job) to the kindness and total acceptance offered by the film’s ostensible romantic leads, the lovely seal-trainer Venus and her clown boyfriend Phrozo, who even risk their own safety to come to the aid of their oddly-shaped friends.  Though the narrative approach is simplistic and heavy-handed, the black-and-white morality is part of what makes it work; it should be obvious that true humanity exists under the skin, having nothing to do either with physical beauty or the lack of it, and it is one of the defining characteristics of the insensitive and the mean-spirited that they neither see nor care about this basic truth- they are, in fact, the real “freaks” in this story, the unnatural evil that must be weeded out in order to restore harmony.  It is a testament to Browning that he makes their comeuppance both horrific and immensely satisfying, accomplishing the somewhat Hitchcockian feat of transferring audience identification to the perpetrators of violence in order to underscore his subversive point.

Freaks does not dwell entirely in the dark and moralistic realm of its main plotline; throughout the film are vignettes, many of them drawn from Browning’s real-life memories of his own years in the circus, of existence in the sideshow world.  It’s a place where, despite the extraordinary nature if its inhabitants, the details of daily life are mundanely familiar- Frieda the midget having girl talk with Venus while hanging laundry, lovers’ politics between the conjoined twins and their paramours (both of whom are, by the way, normals), the joyful bedside gathering of friends when the bearded lady gives birth- and go a long way towards endearing us to the misshapen cast of characters.  Some of these moments are played for laughs hinging on the idea of these outwardly strange individuals behaving like average people (a conceit which, though likely very true to real life, was also a staple of the sideshow and vaudeville acts in which they performed); others are touching and revelatory, such as the early scene in which a landowner stumbles upon Madame Tetralini, the sideshow’s “headmistress,” accompanying several of her more drastically deformed charges on an outing in the woods.  A few of these sequences awaken a genuine sense of wonder and open a window into these unusual lives, such as the famous scene when Prince Randian, the “Human Torso,” expertly lights a cigarette using only his mouth or, most particularly, when a passionate kiss bestowed on one of the conjoined sisters sends a tingling wave of arousal through her twin.  These humanizing moments, some of them unforgettable, contribute to the effects of the well-known scene of Hans and Cleo’s wedding feast; we feel the infectious joy of their raucous celebration- sharing in the fun of Koo-Koo the Bird Girl dancing on the table rather than experiencing the appalled reaction of an uninitiated gawker, respecting the true generosity of their chanted ritual of acceptance for the new bride (“Gooble-gobble, Gooble-gobble, One of Us, One of Us!”) instead of cringing at its seemingly ominous implications, and recognizing Cleopatra and Hercules’ drunkenly flagrant contempt and disrespect for their hosts as the deep affront that it is rather than identifying with it.  For the film’s harrowing climax, however, though these efforts to bond us with the freak community may allow us to be on their side, our sympathy does nothing to alleviate the sheer visceral terror they evoke when we see them lurking in the shadows or crawling slowly but inexorably towards their helpless quarry.  This is Browning’s true mastery coming to its fruition- he helps us to subdue our instinctive and primordial fears around these outwardly disturbing figures and then brings those fears to life for us in a way which simultaneously repulses and elates us.  In this way, he offers a film which transcends its own morality to deliver a pure, non-intellectualized reaction, and one which has rarely been matched, let alone surpassed.

As disquieting as this famous climactic sequence may be, modern audiences will only be able to imagine what it was once like.  Following the film’s overwhelming rejection by preview audiences, MGM made Browning cut a large portion of it; the original version featured the brutal castration of Hercules and included a lengthy and graphic mutilation of Cleopatra by the vengeful freaks.  There was also a longer version of the sideshow epilogue, in which the former strongman was seen on display, singing soprano, before the final revelation of the once-beautiful Cleopatra transformed into a grotesque duck woman- webbed feet, feathers and all.  This latter image, of course, remains in the film, no less disturbing for its lack of logical explanation, and justly infamous for its sheer audacious shock value.  It was meant to be the final moment, a lingering horror to send the audience home to their personal nightmares; in most existing prints of the movie, however, it is followed by a short finale- hurriedly filmed after the cuts were made, in hopes of leaving audiences on a more hopeful note- which shows the reconciliation of little Hans and his faithful Frieda, a pleasant enough conclusion, but juxtaposed against what we have just witnessed, one that feels a little hollow.

In terms of its production values, Freaks was a fairly high-budget project, and it shows.  Many of its scenes were shot on location (that is to say, outdoors) giving it an expansive, realistic feel that is missing in many of the more set-bound films of this early talkie period.   The cinematography (by Merritt B. Gerstad) is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro black-and-white moodiness, and the artistic design captures the authenticity of its circus setting in all its rough-edged, seedy glamour.  As for the acting, the “normal” cast all deliver perfectly acceptable performances in the somewhat stagy, melodramatic style of the day, with Olga Baclanova appropriately standing out as the flamboyantly callous and deceitful Cleopatra.  The specialty players, though all were seasoned performers in the real-life sideshow and vaudeville circuit, were not trained actors; even so- though their delivery is sometimes stilted, their diction often indecipherable, and their characterizations generally simplistic- they are so genuinely themselves that they win us over with the power of sheer personality.  This is especially true in the case of some of the more profoundly compromised actors, such as the microcephalics (“pinheads” being the less-sensitive but more commonly-known term)- particularly “Schlitzie,” (in real life, despite the dress, a man named Simon Metz), whose infectious charm practically leaps off the screen- and those others affected by especially severe genetic defects. Also memorable are Johnny Eck (the legless boy, a handsome and particularly gifted performer who was well-known and popular in Vaudeville), the aforementioned Prince Randian, and Violet and Daisy Hilton (the Siamese twins, also well-established as entertainers offscreen and later the subject of two stage musicals and an acclaimed documentary).  In many cases, these performers continued to work and thrive for many years after their appearance in Freaks (though with the decline of vaudeville many of them eventually faded into obscurity); indeed, one of the movie’s prominent dwarfs, Angelo Rossitto, went on to enjoy a long career as a film actor, culminating in his appearance as the key character of “Masterblaster” (or, at least, the “Master” half) in the 1985 action/sci-fi fantasy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

For most casual audiences, the most important question is this: does Freaks live up to its reputation?  My answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!” Truncated and brightened-up as it may be, Freaks is still a powerful film experience, one which achieves the rare objective of truly forcing the audience to confront its own level of humanity.  It’s hard not to feel compassion for these examples of nature gone wrong, but Browning’s film makes it clear that it is not our pity that matters- rather it is our acceptance.  Pity is another form of judgment, after all, no different perhaps than the less charitable attitude of dismissive contempt exhibited by the film’s scheming villains; it is based on a presumption of inferiority, and even of powerlessness- a presumption Cleopatra and Hercules, to their misfortune, discover to be very much mistaken.  Browning’s movie, for all its deliberate creepiness and sensationalism, is ultimately a powerful reminder of the old admonishment not to judge anything- or anyone- by appearances, and more than that, a strong plea for tolerance and equality.  The circus, after all, is a classic metaphor for the world itself, and the sideshow freaks stand in for all those social misfits who are outcast for their differences.   It is no wonder that Freaks was rescued from cinematic oblivion by the counterculture of the ’60s, and has been embraced ever since by those who, for whatever reason, stand apart from mainstream culture and disdain the shallow hypocrisy they see there; the appeal is obvious to anyone who has ever felt shut out because of who or what they are- and which of us can say they’ve never felt that?  Freaks, then, is a parable that validates the disenfranchised.  It also (to borrow a phrase) comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable, which it’s probably fair to say is what Tod Browning set out to do with his magnum opus.  Though it may have cost him his future, I’m sure it would be some consolation for him to know that, even if it did take decades to happen, he is dearly appreciated for having succeeded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/

 

Vampyr (1932)

Today’s cinema adventure: Vampyr, a 1932 French/German horror film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, about a young man, obsessed with the occult, whose wanderings lead him into the dark troubles of a remote countryside manor, where the owner’s mysteriously ill daughter may be in the grip of horrifying powers from beyond the grave. Dreyer’s first film using sound, it was also his first effort following The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature which, despite enthusiastic acclaim from critics, had been a box office disaster. With no studio willing to take a chance on the basis of his artistic promise alone, Dreyer found private financing from Nicolas de Brunholz, a young Baron who was a fixture of the Parisian social scene, known for his extravagant parties and his patronage of the arts, who would later become a prominent fashion editor for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and a mentor for designers Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, among others). De Brunholz’s condition for backing Dreyer’s film was that he would be its star; under the pseudonym of “Julian West,” assumed to assuage his prominent family’s disapproval of his acting ambitions, he portrays the wispy focal character of Allan Grey, and though his acting abilities were decidedly limited (and wisely un-stretched by Dreyer’s demands), his tall, slender frame and his handsome, elegant appearance set a distinctive tone at the center of the movie, aptly suggesting a strong spirit that has perhaps found himself over his head in a situation beyond his grasp.

Nevertheless, despite the support and participation of one of Europe’s most prominent society figures and the attendant buzz which surrounded it, Vampyr proved to be a worse flop than Joan of Arc, booed at its debut screening and, this time, even derided by the critics, who found it slow-moving, incoherent, and/or laughable; for many years it was widely considered Dreyer’s worst film, falling into such neglect that all but a few damaged original prints were lost. Indeed, produced to capitalize on the popularity of such American horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (though it was initially conceived before these films had been released), it had such a marked difference in tone and style that it is easy to see why it perplexed and disappointed movie-goers of the time. The film’s failure contributed to Dreyer’s declining financial and emotional stability, which led to a nervous breakdown and kept him from making another film for another 11 years. It was only after his subsequent career and the retrospective appreciation of a later generation that reassessment granted it a status more deserved by its innovative and unique contribution to the horror genre and to cinema in general.

Ironically, many of the elements which made Vampyr such a flop are the reasons it is considered such so significant today. On a superficial level, it is one of the first horror films to feature a female vampire (and an elderly one at that) as its main antagonist, having been partly based on the short story Carmilla, by L. Sheridan La Fanu, a popular 19th-century fiction known for its decidedly lesbian overtones- some of which carry over into the film. It was also one of the first times the obvious sexual implications of the vampire myth were explored more overtly; though there is no explicit reference or depiction of sex, the metaphoric connection is clear, particularly in the decidedly romantic manner in which the young heroine is seen being victimized by her attacker. The film is also notable for its re-imagination of the standard, Dracula-based formula seen in most vampire movies; although it features most of the key archetypes inherent to the story, many of the familiar stock characters are absent or significantly changed, and the locations, though suitably grim and antiquated, are not the gothic staples of our expectation- the village is an idyllic, sun-scaped riverside town, devoid of torch-waving mobs, and in place of a foreboding castle for the vampire’s lair, we are given a decrepit flour mill.

More important, however, is Vampyr‘s visual and thematic style, and the underpinnings of its influences from dominant artistic movements of the time. Dreyer’s artistic sensibilities, while distinctly his own, were clearly influenced by his involvement with the French art scene, resulting here in a movie reminiscent of works by his more directly avant-garde contemporaries such as Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. His stated intention with Vampyr was to take the art of cinema in a new direction, using a vehicle which lent itself to imaginative treatment by nature of its supernatural content; in realizing this goal, he blended his own passion for realism (enhanced by his use of natural lighting and authentic location photography) with the heightened theatricality and Freudian overtones of Expressionism, the seemingly nonsensical and dreamlike imagery of Surrealism, and the piecemeal construction of Impressionism. The resultant film glows with an ethereal beauty, combining a variety of cinematographic techniques (exquisitely executed by Rudolph Maté) that range from the sharply defined to the gauzy and murky; the narrative is deliberately cloudy and illogical, filled with non-sequiturs and credibility gaps, creating the feeling of a dream or even a delusion, an effect bolstered by camera trickery that gives us such jarring elements as shadows moving independently (or in compete absence) of their owners, and otherwise commonplace actions occurring in reverse; deeply symbolic or arcane iconography is everywhere, and the screen is filled with a rich and varied texture of design- mostly the result of decor and objects inherent to the actual shooting locations; and finally, the overall effect of Vampyr is created by a cumulative process in which the broad and vivid strokes of its seemingly disjointed progression combine to form a complete picture that is unified and harmonious- if somewhat unsettling.

Adding to the hallucinatory feel of Vampyr is its primitive use of sound. The European film community was behind the curve with the new technology of talking pictures, and the location shooting of Dreyer’s movie only exacerbated the difficulties, as did his plan to shoot the film in three separate languages- French, German, and English, though the existing print was restored from surviving copies of the former two versions and there is no evidence that the latter was ever completed. The problems were surmounted by a screenplay (co-written with Dreyer by Christen Jul) containing a minimum of dialogue, mostly cryptic exchanges that were overdubbed in a studio after the fact by actors other than the ones onscreen; however, the inclusion of aural elements was an integral part of Dreyer’s technique here, and he utilizes a wide variety of eerie effects, not only to underscore the action (along with an elaborate and effective score by Wolfgang Zeller- a pioneering inclusion for early sound films, which were mostly devoid of musical accompaniment), but also to aid in telling the story, with several key scenes relying heavily on soundscapes to convey important events that are taking place off-camera.

However, even with full appreciation for the skill and artistry with which it was made, watching Vampyr is hardly a thrilling experience; with its emphasis on atmosphere and its artistic conceits, it fails to concern itself with such usual priorities as pacing or continuity, and in spite of the macabre crisis it depicts it is largely lacking in suspense or action, contenting itself instead to create a series of elegiac encapsulations of mood and concept. As it approaches its ending, however, Vampyr suddenly shifts gear and delivers a pair of sequences that transform it from an intellectual exercise into a genuine horror movie. First is an extended set piece in which its protagonist has a premonition of himself lying wide-eyed in a windowed coffin, being prepared for and carried off to burial. Through the use of first-person perspective, Dreyer creates a highly uncomfortable, claustrophobic identification of the audience with the corpse, forcing us to imagine our own death and experience the ominous finality of these moments, as well as conjuring the universal fear of being buried alive. Continuing to capitalize on the latter, we are shortly afterward given a scene in which one of the characters, trapped at the bottom of a storage shaft and surrounded by the cold sterility and inhumanity of ominous industrial machinery, is slowly submerged in a cascade of sifted flour until his desperate cries for help are silenced by death. These sections of the film distill its underlying theme into a direct and palpable form; for Vampyr, at its core, is ultimately a meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the fear of which, as Dreyer rightly understood, is at the base of all our obsessive fascination with the dark mythology of our folklore and fiction. When we cringe at the imagined threat of the undead monsters or unspeakable diseases that haunt our shared nightmares, we are really responding to the shadow of our own mortality; and though an iron spike through the heart may end the vampire’s reign of terror, and an emergence from fog into a sunlit clearing may temporarily provide the comfortable reassurance that all will now be well, we know that staving off these supernatural horrors can only delay the inevitable fate which awaits us all. The power of Vampyr derives from its recognition of that fact; and though much of the film expresses the concept of death through motifs and moods that impress us without involving or exciting us, it blindsides us in its penultimate scenes with these visceral evocations of our most primal fear, rendering hollow its obligatory happy ending and leaving us with an indelible sense of the bleak hopelessness summed up in the familiar words inscribed on the lid of our hero’s hallucinatory coffin: “From dust are you made and to dust you shall return.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder, and one which Vampyr provides more vividly than the vast majority of gruesome splatter-fests that represent the horror film genre of today.

http://www.imdb.com/9/title/tt002364