Freaks (1932): Horror?

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I mean, sure, the final moments are some of the scariest and most macabre in film history, but Freaks (1932) far transcends the horror genre. In fact, it has been widely described as a stand-alone piece of cinema. And it is.

Tod Browing’s masterpiece follows a group of circus performers, namely Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze artist who, scheming with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), agrees to marry fellow performer Hans (Harry Earles) in order to con him out of his money, much to the dismay of his girlfriend Frieda (Daisy Earles).

Because it was 1932, and because it was Pre-Code, Freaks was a shocking thing when it premiered. In fact, the original 90 minutes version had to be cut down to just 64 minutes due to it being too graphic. It is thought the original is now lost, but what we were left with is more than enough. There is a lot to love, and a lot to admire. The expression ‘ahead of its time’ is often thrown around without any real meaning, but in this case, it is thouroughly accurate. Freaks’ depiction of dwarfism and people with physical deformities is more than sympathetic and one could even say it was a step towards diversity and representation. No less because they are not the titular freaks; the ‘normal-looking’ ones are. Cleo and Hercules are the villains in this tale. They are ruthless, bullying, manipulative, greedy bastards and they show no remorse whatsoever throughout the film. Contrastingly, the other performers, most of whom physically deformed in one way or another, are shown as caring, loyal, compassionate human beings with real feelings and real relationships and friendships. In fact, our introduction to many of them, in particular the ‘pinheads’ (Elvira Snow and Jenny Lee Snow) as well as Schlitze (as himself) and Half Boy (Johnny Eck) is quite heart-warming. Five minutes into the movie, we see them enjoying a nice day out, playing and laughing with each other, in the company of Madame Tretallini (Rose Dione), who, when questioned by two incredulous men who happen to stumble upon them, says that whenever she gets the chance, she likes to ‘take them into the sunshine and let them play like children’. On top of this, each of these characters, as well as the siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), Half Man-Half Woman (Josephine Joseph), Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick), The Living Torso (Prince Randian), and others, are all depicted as real characters, with their own personality and their own subplots and backstories, as well as a matter-of-fact normalization of their everyday life. Not to mention that their sense of loyalty and friendship comes through in the movie’s climax as they band together against the villainous couple, and save Hans in the process. The other ‘able-bodied’ performers, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso (Wallace Ford), also treat their fellow performers as equals, as we can see in several interactions throughout the film, the significance of which cannot be underestimated.

Freaks is classified as a Pre-Code horror, but apart from its title and its climactic scenes, there isn’t a whole lot in it that can be described as ‘horror’. It’s a tragic love story, a drama, and definitely a Pre-Code gem, but it is much more than that. Freaks was, and is, a phenomenon. It’s still every bit as a effective and heart-wrenching as the day it came out, and looking back at it with 21st Century eyes, we have no choice but to admire it and its progressiveness.

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The timelessness of Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Everything’s been said about Nosferatu (1922), but we can’t really let Classic Horror Month go without talking about it. An unnoficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu has widely been considered to be the first horror movie ever made and some might even say, the finest.

Germany, 1838. Estate agent Thumas Hutter (Gustav van Wangenheim) travels to Transylvania to meet a new client, Count Orlok (Max Schrek). Orlok offers Hutter dinner and, after Hutter cuts his finger while eating, tries to suck his blood out… Things get even weirder the next day after Hutter wakes up in the castle and starts noticing some strange occurrences, particularly when Orlok mentions, after seeing her photo, that Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schroder) has a ‘lovely neck’…

F. W. Murnau’s superbly inventive direction gives Nosferatu a German Expressionist feel and a sense of horror and macabre that many have tried to re-create over the years. Its subject also provides the staple for horror flicks to come, as it takes nearly all of its elements and places them carefully to maximum effect: firstly, the age-old tale of the monster/vampire/supernatural creature that terrorizes everyone in sight – Hutter’s mention of Count Orlok’s name in the inn where he’s having dinner the night before meeting him, makes the locals gasp so loud you can almost hear it. This, of course, has been the standard of nearly all pictures of the genre and quite rightly. It’s a fantastic way of approaching evil and creating this sort of eminent fear in the audience’s mind. A small, peaceful town – for the most part – rocked to its core by this creature, is a wonderful way of kickstarting a horror story. Hutter, as is expected, dismisses their pleas, and goes up to the castle anyway. Once there, we get to see for ourselves the eluvise Count Orlok: an utterly grotesque creature, with big eyes, big ears, claw-like hands and a hump on his back, an impossibly repulsive and creepy figure that becomes ever scarier as the movie goes on. After it becomes obvious that Count Orlok is thirsty for blood, Nosferatu beings its A-game and creates a horrifying tale that relies mostly on visuals and characters. On top of that, not only does it provide a sort of standard for what the horror genre would become, but it also reverses its elements, particularly in the character of Ellen (Greta Schroder), Hutter’s wife and the object of Orlok’s obsession. When Orlok expresses his interest in her, Ellen becomes his victim, yet in many ways, she has a hold on him and she knows she must sacrifice herself in order to save the town and everyone in it, even though she was thrust into this nightmare without really having done anything to deserve it. Could Ellen be the hero, rather than Hutter? Maybe. She’s an atypical heroine, but then again Orlok is an atypical villain. Is he human? A vampire? A supernatural being? Perhaps the most fascinating thing about him is that, whatever he is, he is unashamed about it. His image is grotesque and his intentions are cruel and brutal. He is unafraid and he knows the power he has. So much so that everyone in town knows and fears him. He has the ability to turn an otherwise quiet town into a pandemonium, particularly during the second half, when the plague arrives. Everyone is utterly horrified and this town becomes the stuff of nightmares: mass death, references to the occult, people fearing for their lives and paranoia. It’s chaos. Of course, one of the reasons it has the effect it does is because of the brutal imagery and wonderfully crafted direction, which is a constant throughout the film. Shadows are used to perfection – no, I won’t go on about the iconic scene – and camera angles are perfectly positioned to create this sense of terror and claustrophobia. It’s magnificently horrifying.

Endless remakes, adaptations and references could have easily taken away from its magic over the years but they haven’t. A silent movie that relies mosty on visuals (and how!), Nosferatu is as impressive today as it was in 1922 and it conveys what it set out to like nothing else before or since.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

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The Most Dangerous Game (1932, dir. Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack) knows what it is and doesn’t hold back. Starting with its mysterious opening credits (that Max Steiner theme tune!), it lets us know straight-away what we’re getting into.

A ship sails through a channel off the South American coast. Aboard is Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), a big game hunter, and his wealthy friends, who engage in a debate about hunting for sport. Rainsford opines that there are two kind of people in the world: those who hunt and those who are hunted. Shortly afterwards, there’s a crash. The ship sinks with nearly everyone in it and, after two of the passengers are eaten by a shark, Bob becomes the only survivor. He emerges in a small island, and stumbles on a sinister mansion. As it becomes clear that he’s not the only ‘guest’, Bob realizes that the tables have turned… 

Right from the beginning all the way to the movie’s heart-stopping climax, The Most Dangerous Game is non-stop thrill-fest. And like with most horror pictures, the villain is the most interesting character. Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), the owner of the house and a big game hunter himself, is an eccentric, well-spoken, clever, peculiar-looking, homicidal maniac who takes sadistic pleasure in killing (‘Kill, then love… when you have known that, you have known ecstasy..’). His fortress is certainly a reflection of his self-absorption: a menacing, sinister place in the middle of a deserted island, with perhaps the creepiest knocker you’ll ever see – making its second appearance after the credits. Because it’s horror, Bob walks into this gothic house, and the door closes behind him, revealing Ivan (Noble Johnson), the servant. We’re in. And as Zaroff comes walking down the stairs, elegantly dressed and scar-faced, we realize that this is not going to end well. Bob is stuck, locked in, in a way that is reminiscent of William Holden in Sunset Blvd (1950). And there’s a sort of party going on. A strange party of four, consisting of himself, Zaroff, and siblings Eve (Fay Wray) and Martin (Robert Armstrong), two passengers from the previous ship-wreck. Things get even stranger, as Zaroff and Bob exchange opinions about hunting that lead to philosophical existential questions which contribute to the reversal of role identity (villains vs hero) of both Zaroff and Bob, as we’re forced to answer their questions ourselves and decide what’s wrong and what’s right in this underrcurent debate of hunters and huntees. However, as this goes on, Zaroff slowly reveals his true intentions… The most dangerous game is that of hunting men, of course (sexual undertones galore in this one!) and by the time Bob realizes this, it’s too late.

One of the most thrilling pictures of its day, The Most Dangerous Game still holds up fantastically well today and is often thought to be the finest adaptation of Richard Connell’s classic story – and there have been quite a lot. Not to mention that Zaroff, as well as Banks’ outstanding perfomance, should rightfully go down on history as one of the greatest villains in horror history.

DOUBLE BILL #19: The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolfman (1941)

Horror is fascinating. Horror characters are fascinating. Whether they’re human, or monsters in the classic sense, the many complexities that you find in all of them are equally disturbing and wonderful. And The Invisble Man (1933) and The Wolfman (1941) are two of the finest in the bunch.

The Invisible Man (1933) starts in an English inn on a cold winter night. A heavily bandaged man, wearing a hat and dark goggles, comes in from the cold and asks for a room upstairs. The landlady, played by Una O’Connor, informs him they don’t rent out rooms at this time of year, but the man insists. Two weeks later, landlord Mr Hall (Forest Harvey) attempts to evict him for not paying rent, leading the man to push him down the stairs. The police arrives and as they confront him, the man removes his bandages and to everyone’s surprise, he’s invisible. This is Dr Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a chemist who has discovered the invisibility drug. Unfortunately, the side effects are brutal and he becomes insane…

James Whales’ adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel is widely regarded as one of the ultimate horror movies of all time, rightly so. Apart from its innovative special effects, which are still astonishing to watch, its ironic humanization – however you want to look at it – of the invisible man does not go unnoticed. The invisibility drug renders Dr Griffin insane and power-hungry and, in a speech to Kemp (William Harrigan), whom he has forced to be his visible partner, he vows to take over the world, by committing a ‘few murders here and there’ and asserting his reign of terror, stating that an invisible man could rule the world. He’s an out-and-out monster. And he’s unapologetic about it. He’s a menacing, malicious, murderous monster. And a human one at that. Literally. This is clearly a clever nod to the audience and that message still holds up beautifully. Claude Rains’ performance as the titular invisible man is nothing short of amazing: relying purely on his physicality and his voice, probably the most beautiful male voice in Classic Hollywood, he delivers a thouroughly convincing, horrifyingly scary performance that could not have been more perfect for his American movie debut. Especially because of how complex it is. It’s not just scary, there’s also a human side to it, in the form of Flora (Gloria Stuart), his fiancee and the only person he shows any affection towards. This humanity almost shifts the character’s identity from villain to tragic anti-hero. Almost. Were it not for his truly disturbing deeds. Is he the most dangerous of all the classic monsters? Maybe. But if he’s the most dangerous, then the Wolfman is surely one of the most tragic.

In The Wolfman (1941) (.dir. George Waggner), Larry Talbot Jr (Lon Chaney Jr) returns home after an eighteen-year absense to make up with his father (Claude Rains) after the death of his brother. While there, he meets and falls in love with Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who works at an antiques shop. As a way of striking up a conversation, he buys a walking stick decorated with the head of a werewolf. That same night, in an attempt to save Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) from a wolf attack, he kills it with his walking stick but is bitten in the process. Later, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), a fortune teller, tells him the wolf was actually his son Bela (Bela Lugosi) and that he too will be transformed into a wolf…

Boasting one of the greatest scripts if its genre, The Wolfman is a lot more complex than it might seem at first. It is, essentially, a psychological drama that takes on the form of a horror picture, so to speak. Larry Talbot is a tragic figure. He craves the love and approval of his father, and he never seems to fully get it. What’s more, he never has. We understand that straight-away during their first meeting. Later on, he seeks the companionship of a woman by creepily watching her from his bedroom and then lusting after her (predator-like?) even though she’s already engaged. He seems to be entirely unadjusted to the society he walked back into, and he’s quite repressed. Depressed even. Which certainly suggests that the psychological angle is stronger than we may think. Does he become a werewolf as a sort of response to his emotional needs? As a way of coping with it? The mere fact that he doesn’t seem to want to be a werewolf, trying his hardest to get away from it, suggests denial. The movie’s brutal ending – featuring one of Claude Rains’ best movie moments – is all the more horrible because of the psychological aspect of it. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a truly scary atmosphere here. There is. Enveloped in fog right from the off, starting on the night of Larry and Gwen’s first date, the mood is eerie, dark and spooky. And it’s magnificent.

The similarities and contrasts between these two main characters are quite striking. One of the things that I find interesting about them is that they seem to come from a background that wouldn’t lend itself to this sort of thing. One is a chemist, the other comes from a rich, well-regarded family, yet they’re both fighting their demons, despite (or maybe because of) their background. I also like the fact that the Invisble Man is very much a visible figure, in the sense that everyone’s aware of him and he himself doesn’t hide or try to conceal what he is or what he wants to achieve. The Wolfman, on the other hand, is a mysterious creature, to the point where most of the villagers and even Larry himself doubt its existence. This is certainly evident in the opening sequence in both movies. In The Invisble Man, we open on a cold, snowy night, after which the mood of the inn is disturbed by our man, who walks in and demands a room, bandaged up but not really afraid to show himself. Larry Talbot’s entrance is quite the opposite. The Wolfman starts off innocently enough, in the main family home, seemingly protected by this very notion of the ‘family home’. This isn’t to last of course, but that won’t be for a while. The Invisible Man, in other words, doesn’t pull any punches. The Wolfman reveals itself slowly… Their respective townspeople’ own perspective of them certainly corroborates this. Everyone in the English village is utterly terrified of the Invisible Man, whereas the villagers in The Wolfman are quite relunctant to the mere thought that there might be a werewolf walking around. The psychological aspect, again, contributes to this. The Invisible Man’s assured, arrogant attitude and The Wolfman’s resistance in accepting himself lead the two movies down very different, yet kind of similar paths.

Again, it’s a fascinating genre and one that can lead to several discussions. That’s what I find amazing about it, and that’s what I love about these two movies and these two characters. Apart from the fact that they’re both truly, genuinely terrifying in their own way. Besides, you can’t go wrong with Claude Rains!

 

The horror…!

October’s here (have I been doing this for every month?) and while I’d like to think I’m an open-minded film buff, I keep telling people (and myself) that ‘horror’s not really one of my favorite genres’ in casual conversations. There’s no real reason for it, other than the fact that I really haven’t given it much thought or made a real effort to properly watch some horror flicks. As I’ve said many times, I don’t like it when I don’t like a movie. And I especially don’t like it when it’s a whole genre. I used to feel that way about Westerns (again, no particular reason) and then The Searchers (1956) and Stagecoach (1939) changed my mind (I love Stagecoach a whole lot more than I would have guessed I would). So… guess what I’ll be doing this October?! You’re darn right. It’s time to finally give horror a chance. Here I go…