‘Freaks: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers’ Criterion Collection Blu-ray review

In 1931, Tod Browning directed his most famous film, and arguably one of the most influential horror films ever made, with his adaptation of ‘Dracula’ starring Bela Lugosi. A year later, he would make one of the strangest, most transgressive, and controversial films every produced by a mainstream Hollywood studio. The film in question is of course, ‘Freaks’, presented here in this stunning box set from the Criterion Collection, alongside another of his most famous works, ‘The Unknown’ and the much rarer and long unavailable ‘The Mystic’.  

One of the defining films of pre-code horror, ‘Freaks’ is set in the backstage world of a travelling sideshow, and tells the story of a beautiful trapeze artist called Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who pretends to fall in love with Hans (Harry Earles), a little person in the carnival, so she can rob him of his inheritance. She is cruel and mocking to the other sideshow performers, and plans to poison Hans and then run away with circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). 

Browning’s decision to cast real-life sideshow performers with real physical disabilities, makes the film an incredibly ahead of its time representation of marginalised people, but has also been criticised as sensationalist and exploitative. This debate has gone on for nearly 100 years, and will almost certainly continue as this new release brings the film to new audiences. Browning’s intention was reportedly to destigmatise the mystique and wonder around these people, and for them to be seen exactly as they were, as human beings. Of course, this is somewhat undermined by the monstrous and—still to this day—truly shocking ending.

But at the same time, it is the twist ending that clearly reveals where Browning’s sympathies lie, and it’s not with the scheming trapeze artist, that’s for damn sure. ‘Freaks’ is an extraordinary and challenging film. Humane and thought-provoking, yet still boasting some of the most iconic images from the last century of horror cinema. Reviled on initial release, the film essentially ended Browning’s career in Hollywood, but in the decades since has rightly been reassessed as one of his greatest achievements.

In ‘The Mystic’ (1925) a con man enlists a phony psychic from a Hungarian carnival in a plot to scam rich Americans out of their fortunes. A touch more melodramatic than the other two films in this collection, however the seance scenes are excellent, Dean Hurley’s brand-new score is wonderful, and Aileen Pringle is fabulous as the devious, grifting mystic. Both versions of ‘Nightmare Alley’ owe more than a little to this silent era proto-noir thriller. 

Credit: Spirit Entertainment

Digitally restored from the only two remaining nitrate prints, ‘The Unknown’ (1927) marks Browning’s most famous collaboration with actor Lon Chaney. A psychosexual drama, full of shocking twists, deception, and mutilation, there’s something horrifically compelling about it. One of the most unusual films of the era, telling the story of a twisted love triangle between a fugitive conman, a woman who fears being touched by men, and a circus strongman. Unless you’ve seen this before, you will never guess where it is heading. A truly ghoulish delight. Also features a young Joan Crawford as the heroine caught between these two pawing men. 

This two-disc set comes packed with excellent bonus content. The first disc is dedicated to ‘Freaks’ and begins with a brand-new commentary track with author and Tod Browning biographer David J. Skal. ‘The Sideshow Cinema’ is a terrific documentary from 2004 featuring interviews with experts, historians, and sideshow performers. The main contributions however come from David J. Skal (who you will see a lot of in the supplementary features). This documentary offers a great contextual insight into the development, the production, and the controversial legacy of this film.

Next up is an audio reading of ‘Spurs’, the short story by Tod Robbins which inspired the film. There’s also a video gallery of portraits of the cast of ‘Freaks’. Also included is the 1947 prologue which was added to the film and helped change perceptions of it as it was discovered by new audiences. 

There’s a short clip, again with Skal, looking at the different versions of the ending the film went through. Disc one is then rounded off with a 2019 episode of the podcast Ticklish Business, with a discussion of the disabled representation in ‘Freaks’.

Disc two presents the other two films in this set. Alongside which there are introductions from David J. Skal, and brand-new original scores by Philip Carli and Dean Hurley respectively. There is a brand-new commentary track on ‘The Unknown’, and finally ‘Sideshow Tod’ which is an excellent new interview with author Megan Abbott about Browning and pre-code horror.

Credit: Spirit Entertainment

Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, Aileen Pringle, Conway Tearle, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford Director: Tod Browning Released By: Spirit Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 197 mins Release Date: 23rd October 2023

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