Blu-ray Review: Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers [Criterion] | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, December 9th, 2023  

Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Oct 20, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“We told you we had living, breathing, monstrosities. You’ll laugh at them, shudder at them, and yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one, and you offend them all…”

This new set from Criterion showcases three works from Tod Browning: a former carnival barker-turned-Hollywood director who became one of the earliest giants of American horror cinema. This particular trio of films is tied together by their sideshow settings, with two taking place at circuses and the third revolving around a mentalist act. It was subject matter that was close to home for Browning, who himself had run away to join a traveling fair as a teenager—and had clearly formed a deep fascination with the performers who earned their livings through their sensational acts and, in some cases, making a spectacle of their physical abnormalities.

Regarded for decades as an embarrassment by its studio only to become a cult hit since its rediscovery in the 1960s, Freaks (1932) is the best-known feature in the Sideshow Shockers collection—and by this point Browning’s second-most famous film after his classic Universal monster pic, Dracula (1931). Infamous for its casting of real-life sideshow performers (and for its “gooble gobble” wedding chant that went on to inspire one of the Ramones’ best-known songs), it was too controversial for its period and was something that was still talked about in somewhat hushed tones as recently as the 1990s. It’s now regarded by some as a milestone in on-screen representation of disabilities; although a “horror” film with a truly frightening finale, the so-called “freaks” are its most sympathetic characters.

Freaks largely centers on a duo of little people, Hans and Frieda, played by siblings Harry and Daisy Earles. Although they are engaged to be married, Hans is helplessly smitten with the circus’s trapeze artist, Cleopatra, who is in turn having a secret affair with the show’s strongman, Hercules. When Cleopatra and Hercules discover that Hans is the lone heir of a humongous European fortune, they concoct a plan for her to reciprocate his flirtations, eventually marry, and then murder poor Hans. Their nefarious plot almost works, except that Hans’ friends are suspicious of Cleopatra’s intentions—and step in to exact revenge for a wrong that’s been inflicted to one of their own.

There are subplots that revolve around other characters, such as a courtship between the resident clown and a comely animal trainer, as well as the romantic engagements of Violent and Daisy Hilton—real-life conjoined twins, each pursued by a different, comically-oblivious suitor. Even as it flits from one storyline to another, Freaks doesn’t step outside the circus until its brief coda. More interesting still is that it barely shows the performance itself, instead focusing on the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day activities and the personal lives of its members.

Much discussion of the film’s portrayal of persons with disabilities can be found online, and throughout the supplemental materials in this set. There are so few films like it, even today, that it’s easy to overlook Browning’s artistry—including some truly frightening moments in the film’s last act—or the film’s sense of humor and emotional punch. These become easier to appreciate on repeat viewings, after the initial shock has worn off. Harry and Daisy Earles’ performances are particularly strong, even as they speak through thick, German accents. Their reactions during the movie’s famous wedding scene—her heartbreak, his shame—are absolutely crushing.

Most interested parties will be picking up this set primarily for Freaks, but the two silent features included in the set are certainly worthwhile. Working our way backwards, The Unknown (1927) Lon Chaney as “Alonzo the Armless,” who is in love with the assistant Nanon, played by the great Joan Crawford. They perform a thrilling act in which she stands, unafraid, against a wall while he tosses knives at her with his toes and shoots the straps off her top with an air rifle. We learn soon that he’s faking his disability with the help of a corset, and he’s doing this for two reasons: as a cover-up a string of crimes he committed, and because Nanon is deathly afraid of men’s hands. Afraid she’ll eventually catch on to his ruse, Alonzo has the idea to amputate his secret arms and win her heart—but, of course, that can’t happen without a macabre twist. The Unknown is exactly as strange as it sounds, as well as a fantastic showcase for its two famous leads. Also included here is The Mystic (1925), a Nightmare Alley-esque story about a group of grifters that come together to swindle grieving rich folks out of their money through phony séances. While not on the same level as the other features in the set, The Mystic does boast a memorable performance from a superbly-costumed Aileen Pringle, and offers a fun, behind-the-scenes look at some of the deceitful trickery used in notorious, turn-of-the-century medium acts.

All three films are shown here in new, 2K digital restorations. They show the understandable wear and tear that comes with age, but we can attest that this is the best we’ve ever seen Freaks look—and would venture to guess that the same can be said for the others by people who were familiar with them before this release. The two silents come with newly-composed scores which sound great on a modern home theater setup. Inside the booklet is a welcome and lengthy essay about Browning’s career by Farran Smith Nehme, one of the best contributors to join the Criterion stable in recent years. Browning biographer David J. Skal provides commentaries for two of the features, and crime novelist Megan Abbott supplies a fantastic video appreciation for the director and his work. Finally, the Freaks discs includes a reading of the original short story which inspired the film, a podcast recording that looks more deeply into how the film portrayed disabilities, a photo gallery and an alternate opening, and two featurettes ported over from the previous DVD release. The first briefly examines the varying endings for the film, and the other, longer documentary is a more traditional “making of” piece that’s somewhat dated but provides incredible background information on the cast of Freaks—and talks about their lives both before and after Hollywood.



Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.