Freaks, Tod Browning's "freak films"
Image: Criterion trailer screengrab

Tod Browning’s Notorious “Freak Films” Leave a Lingering Aftertaste

Tod Browning’s macabre obsessions with making “freak films” may at first seem distasteful and exploitative, but their aftertaste induces food for thought.

Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic: Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers
Tod Browning
17 October 2023

Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up and witness the most macabre and gruesome sexual obsessions ever to pop out of your fevered nightmares. See psychic hucksters! See armless wonders! See gorgeous sirens! See shocking freakshows in which you become the freak!

Tod Browning cut his teeth on circuses, sideshows, carnivals, and other venues before he entered the world of “freak films” and established a reputation for bizarre, unsavory tales that made a mint at the box office. Three of those titles are showcased in a new two-disc set from Criterion, Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers.

The centerpiece, of course, is his most well-known “freak film”, Freaks (1932), a highly personal and instantly notorious piece of cinema maudit that almost trashed Browning’s career, though he still made a few good pictures. Fresh from his success with Dracula (1931), Browning made Freaks at MGM, a studio that made lots of money over the years with Browning’s Lon Chaney films. After tumultuous previews, MGM severely chopped it so that Browning’s original 90-minute version is lost forever. Therefore, the film itself is deformed. Then the studio pulled it from release amid general critical lashing, with notable exceptions. England banned it for decades.

Not until the ’60s did the re-evaluation of Freaks begin. When it became available in the home video era, audiences began to process that, even in mangled form, Browning’s vision loves its freaks. Shown in their private lives, the sideshow citizens are presented as human beings who form their own supportive family of outcasts against the world. They become the society that decides whether a “normal” outsider will be accepted as “one of us”.

When those “normal” outsiders are revealed as morally grotesque and deformed, the freaks exact a terrible revenge, for Freaks is still a horror movie. The long reach of its influence can be felt not only in obvious homages like Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love (1989) or American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014) but in every “outsider” movie, especially those based on physical deformities, such as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985). In 1994, Freaks was drafted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

As it now exists, Freaks is a nearly plotless melange of scenes, almost a comedy, running just over an hour. The two most coherent scenes of great power are the wedding feast and the shadowy, storm-lashed, Expressionistic climax of revenge. This is where it’s possible to argue that the freaks are presented as monsters, although the story has so manipulated our emotions that we have little pity for their “normal” victims and regard them as reaping what they’ve sown.

The 2K digital restoration of Freaks offers historically informed commentary by film scholar David J. Skal, who also gives a reading of the short story on which the film is based. Other bonus material discusses alternate prologues and endings. There’s a podcast from Kristen Lopez on the film’s disability representation and an interview with thriller writer Megan Abbott.

As important as Freaks is, those of us with a jones for classic horror already had copies at the tips of our claws. What makes Criterion’s set sensational is the inclusion of two other films, the nearly-complete 2022 restoration of The Unknown (1927) and the digital premiere of The Mystic (1925), and they both look fabulous.

Lon Chaney, the Uber “Freak”

Browning made ten “freak films” with Lon Chaney in which the actor increasingly tortured himself with masochistic devices and makeup. In other words, Chaney made a freak of himself for reasons so obscure as to invite psychological speculation. The Unknown is a highlight of that collaboration, and this restoration has uncovered about ten more minutes of footage from a Czechoslovakian print to offer the most complete version possible.

A mesmerizing Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer who uses his foot to shoot bullets at the lovely Nanon (a fiery Joan Crawford), thus disrobing her as they rotate on a wheel. Then he throws knives at her while she smiles and preens. For reasons that probably don’t require much speculation when we look at her angry father, Nanon has a phobia of men’s hands and can’t bear to be touched. Browning’s films cram in the subtexts.

Alonzo thinks Nanon’s hand phobia gives him a leg up, as it were. Half of his behavior shows off how he does everything with his pedal extremities. He’s jealous that strongman Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) might make inroads with Nanon, and then we discover some stunning secrets about Alonzo.

The Unknown has so many startling and grotesque “reveals” that we’ll stop right there and only remark that this story by Browning and Waldemar Young is as neurotic and nauseous as a scorpion omelet. Even this brief summary of this “freak film” indicates plenty of Freudian symbolism jumping out of the screenplay’s hat. In his excellent commentary, Skal discusses the Freudian notions of absent limbs and castration anxiety, and Browning was aware of all this. In fact, one of the elements in his original cut of Freaks that had to be lopped off was the implication that its strongman is castrated.

The Mystic focuses on Zara (Aileen Pringle), a Hungarian Gypsy who stages tricky spook shows. As with Crawford in The Unknown, Zara is introduced while having knives thrown at her by a would-be possessive boyfriend (Robert Ober) while Papa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) looks on. Browning’s films, at times, seem like one long obsessive epic of variations on the same characters and actors, so the more films you see, the more meaning each one has. This is how we know we’re dealing with an auteur.

The warm camaraderie of the carnival hucksters in The Mystic establishes that, as usual, Browning loves his show folk and their weird acts. Their fun is interrupted by Michael Nash (Conway Tearle), who says he’ll bring them to New York and introduce them to the big time if they go along with his schemes. Before you can say boo, Princess Zara is the talk of the Big Apple, and we get to enjoy the mechanics of one of her phony seances. These are the scenes where she’s dressed in extravagant gowns by Erté, who was briefly employed at MGM.

The rest of The Mystic is a back-and-forth story of loyalties and love involving a naïve heiress (Gladys Hulette) and her dishonest guardian (David Torrence). The question is whether love and conscience will triumph over greed. If you’re wondering about that, we’ll remind you that this is Hollywood melodrama. The bigger question is whether Zara will end up with the slick American or her knife-thrower.

Although The Mystic doesn’t have the sizzle and frisson of Browning at his most ghastly, it offers its own “freak film” pleasures. One of these is the lively performance of Pringle, a high-profile star of the decade who hung out with lots of classy friends and later was married for about 15 minutes to novelist James M. Cain. The scenes of spookery-fakery are fun. An unusual asset is Dean Hurley’s new score, which uses lots of silence and sound effects.

An introduction by Skal offers quotations from Pringle and from Erté’s memoirs. Both Skal and Abbott notice similarities between The Mystic and William Lindsay Gresham’s much darker 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, which has been filmed twice. Skal speculates that young Gresham could easily have seen Browning’s film.