Tag Archives: Freak

CAPSULE: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Stephen Plunkett,  Charlie Korsmo

PLOT: While starring in a low budget period horror film, Mabel makes the acquaintance of some affable “freaks” brought on set for authenticity; while the main cast and crew’s away, the freaks pass the time making their own movie vignettes.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made as a rejoinder to the infamous Freaks (1932), Aaron Schimberg’s movie is non-exploitative, clever, funny, and professional. While the meta-narrative gets a little odd at one point, Chained to Life really boils down to being a feel-good comedy in the very best possible way.

COMMENTS: I found something very odd about my viewing experience of Chained for Life, and it wasn’t the subject matter. After the brief introduction by the soft-spoken director, I was feeling nervous, for some reason. Admittedly, I’ve had difficulty coping with the sight of deformity (in person and otherwise), but having thought about it—and having now seen the movie—it was the wider critical interpretation that I’d read beforehand that made me apprehensive, and afterwards made me confused. I’ll talk about what other critics saw later; me, I saw a charming, character-driven comedy.

When a busload of disabled people show up at the shoot for a period horror film, there is a hiccup of apprehension on the part of the “normals” already present. The leading lady, Mabel (Jess Weixler), plays the movie’s movie’s leading lady, a woman blinded by some unexplained accident who is promised to be cured through radical surgery. However, Chained for Life focuses primarily on the actors and crew involved, in particular on the blossoming friendship between the physically self-conscious Mabel and the physically self-accepting Rosenthal (Adam Pearson). While primary filming progresses by day, the “freaks” lodge in the hospital by night, eventually deciding to play around with filmmaking themselves. One twist leads to a cute reveal after a ways, but the story is pretty simple.

That’s not to say it isn’t well done. By using the pretentious “art-house” nonsense being filmed by a hyper- stand-in (billed only as “Herr Director”) as a counterpoint to the day-to-day scenes of people interacting with people, Aaron Schimberg crumples up any fear of “the Other” by focusing on the lighter side of the banality everyone faces. There are also moments of considerable hilarity scattered throughout. At one point, Herr Director demands Rosenthal “emerge from the shadows”. When asked the simple question, “What am I doing in the shadows?,” Herr Director goes off on a lengthy, increasingly impassioned tangent concerning The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ epic quest, and the big reveal of . This handily reveals the director’s obsessions without providing Rosenthal with any good reason why his character would just be kicking around in the dark, while also nicely linking the two phenomena together: as Schimberg remarked in an interview, whenever there’s a big reveal (chair swivel, shadow emergence), it’s either a celebrity or a “freak”.

But what of those other critics? One used the term “black comedy” , and the only interpretation I can make of that being any comedy involving these kinds of people must be subversive somehow. Another’s mind was blown by a modest twist found in the final act; it was as if he watched a far more complicated movie than I had. But despite the unsettling undercurrents discovered by other reviews, I found Chained for Life to be as pleasing as it is witty. As the credits appear, they spool over one long take on the bus of the variously disabled actors after the in-movie movie shoot. After so deftly undermining preconceptions about disfigured people, this stunt pays off handsomely. What do we see when we watch them on the bus? Totally normal people being totally, normal, bored. It was an excellent flourish and a perfect way to underline the film’s thesis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all culminates in an odd, almost surreal sequence in the back of a hired car, shot in a single long take. This deeply weird finale, both humorous and moving, strikes an uncanny note I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — something mesmerizingly close to the sensation of a waking dream.”–Callum Marsh, The Village Voice (festival screening)

338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far Continue reading 338. FREAKS (1932)

290. SKINS (2017)

Pieles

“I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.”–Baruch Spinoza

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Eduardo Casanova

FEATURING: Ana Polvorosa, Candela Peña, Macarena Gómez, Carmen Machi, Jon Kortajarena, Secun de la Rosa, Itziar Castro, Antonio Durán ‘Morris’, Ana María Ayala, Eloi Costa

PLOT: Unable to control his impulses, a tormented pedophile visits a madam who specializes in “unusual” tastes. From the catalog she offers, he selects a girl born with no eyes, and brings her a gift of two jewels. The lives of these two, along with other internally and externally deformed people including a woman with an anus for a mouth and a boy who wishes he was a mermaid, intersect in surprising ways seventeen years later.

Still from Skins [Pieles] (2017)

BACKGROUND:

  • Eduardo Casanova was a child star on Spanish television. Starting in 2009, he used the money and connections he made acting to make a series of short films. Many of the eventual cast members of Skins appear in these shorts. One, 2015’s “Eat My Shit,” features Ana Polvorosa in an incident that later made it into Skins (although the tone of the short is more juvenile and jokey than the feature film).
  • Underground director and actress (who starred in one of Casanova’s earlier shorts and appears in a small role as a psychiatrist here) served as producers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This pink and purple freak fantasia provides many possibilities, both disturbing and beautiful. The obvious choice would be Samantha, the girl with the inverted digestive system. If at all possible, it’s best that her appearance be left as a surprise, although that may be hard to do given her prominence in the trailer and the fact that she’s the character everyone describes when describing the movie to their friends. We’ll go in a different, but equally memorable, direction by selecting Cristian’s mermaid-boy fantasy, which features the lavender-headed outcast seated on a rock crusted by pink seashells in a purple-walled heaven while fish rain around him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink merkin; the prettiest eyes in the world; freak fetish

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  From the opening scene of a reluctant pedophile crying as he makes his selection in a highly specialized brothel, decorated all in pink and run by an elderly madame who works in the nude, Skins‘s crazy credentials are never in doubt. Perhaps the most shocking things aren’t the deformities and perversions but the compassion and intricate plotting, which suggest depths beyond Skins‘ freak show surface.


Promotional video for Skins (Imagine Film Festival Screening)

COMMENTS: A weird, glittering pink gem lies hidden deep in the Continue reading 290. SKINS (2017)

DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

Critics and audiences were surprised by ‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of Joseph Merrick 1)The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film. was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by or . Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, is entirely artifice.

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by ‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is ‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.

Still from The Elephant Man (1980)

Like the monster of ‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel.  After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.

Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”

In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.

References   [ + ]

1. The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film.

CAPSULE: THROUGH THE WEEPING GLASS (2011)

On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: This brief film essay contemplates various medical misfortunes and wonders in the framework of an often unsettling visit to the Mütter Museum. Exploring conditions ranging from Fibrodysplasia Ossificus Progressiva to conjoined twin-hood, Through the Weeping Glass examines anomalous conditions, creepy medical devices, and the sometimes unnatural nature of being human.

Still from Through the Weeping Glass (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As documentaries go, this is an unnerving one whose subject matter is investigated with hazy-to-sharp focus, super-imposition, and eerie recreations of the backstories. However, the movie maintains a disciplined technique, providing a glimpse at the nastiness of medical phenomena through history that is easy to follow—as unpleasant as that proves to be at times.

COMMENTS: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” So begins our visit to Philadelphia’s museum of medical oddities. The sweet, soft-spoken narration provided by Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius,” “Brother Cadfael”) sets things up with a twist: naturally everyone becomes a skeleton eventually, as death comes to us all. However, the seemingly mundane words quickly get sinister when the case of Harry Eastlack is explored. Harry injured himself as a child, fracturing his leg while playing with his sister. The bone healed, and then kept growing. Ultimately, his skeleton developed a further skeleton around itself, and we are informed, “in the end, [he] could only move [his] lips.”

By the beginning of the past decade, the Quay brothers had long established themselves as the wizards of stop-motion animation. One of their passions, however, has always been “exotic arcana” (so sayeth the pamphlet accompanying their recent anthology), and their piece on the Mütter Museum and its contents marks the first time the brothers ever made a movie stateside. “Weeping Glass” features few of the otherworldly flourishes that mark their main body of work—most notably altering of portraits’ eyes by giving them an ominous, forlorn sheen—but the camera technique and soundscape summon the unsettling vibe that permeates their oeuvre. Focus on objects shimmers from sharp to blurry, tracking shots are choppy and often pursued at unlikely eye levels, and an animation of sorts is provided by the super-imposition of hands when pre-16th century texts and pre-20th century medical devices are displayed.

The oddest achievement the brothers can claim with this documentary is their uncanny knack to ride on the darker side of the line separating creepy and cheesy. The jump cuts between alarming images are often accompanied by the dissonant, clanking score one would expect to find in the lazier varieties of horror movie. Though they are no doubt helped by the fact that what’s on display would be unsettling no matter how presented, the Quays still impress by forcing the viewer to realize, “oh, I know they’re just trying to make me addled. Dear Lord, it’s working.”

By the end of “Through the Weeping Glass,” you will not only learn about the tragic case of Harry Eastlack, but also catch glimpses of a man with a pillow-sized tumor, get a peak at both the Hyrtl skull collection (139 specimens, each with a brief history of the owner written thereon) and Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of swallowed objects (over 2,300 pins, game pieces, and even a “Perfect Attendance” badge), and finish off with a couple exchanging their “…’til death do us part” wedding vows in the presence of the plaster cast bodies of the famed “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. “Through the Weeping Glass” is a disquieting piece, but the Quays’ direction and Jacobi’s nuanced voice-over inject it with a subversive sense of humor. This late example of the Pennsylvania boys’ work is very informative, highly watchable, and delightfully grotesque.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…rare is the non-fiction film that through its style, design and intent properly matches the tropes of the fictional horror flick. And perhaps this creature is so rare that only one exists: Through the Weeping Glass…”–Mike Everleth, Underground Film Journal (contemporaneous)

CURTIS HARRINGTON’S NIGHT TIDE (1961)

Curtis Harrington was an authentic cineaste whose early work was entirely experimental. Among the films he worked on before branching out on his own (as an actor and a cinematographer) were ‘s Puce Moment (1949) and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Reportedly, he was involved with , and certainly sang her praises throughout his life. Rather than continuing in the avant-garde vein, Harrington’s first feature film was the nightmarish cult oddity Night Tide (1961). It’s been dubbed a horror film, but the label isn’t entirely adequate. Elements of , , , and are like layered slivers in this ethereal mermaid opus.

Night Tide was also the late ‘s first feature film. So cemented is his psychotic reputation from films like Blue Velvet (1986) and River’s Edge (1986) that his role here as a clean cut all-American boy under the spell of an aquatic succubus might be a little disconcerting. Yet, Hopper brings an element of vulnerability and pathos to his lonely sailor that makes him ideally cast as one lovestruck for the mermaid of the full moon, and helps make Night Tide deserving of its reputation as a quirky original.

In its subtlety and evocative atmosphere Night Tide owes most to Cat People (1942). While Linda Lawson, very effective in the role of Mora, is not quite in the league of Simone Simon, Hopper is far more convincing and sympathetic than Kent Smith was in the Lewton production. Deren’s mystical influence ebbs through Harrington’s script, his cinematography and the overall milieu. As much as Harrington tried to sell his film as a commercial thriller, his previous work shaped Night Tide, stamped it as unorthodox, and certainly hurt its commercial viability.

Still from Night Tide (1961)While on leave, Johnny (Hopper), looking for female companionship, roams through a Venice Beach carnival and meets the mysterious Mora (Lawson) at a jazz bar. Strangely enough, we never see Johnny with other sailors. He only seems a sailor because we are told he is one. Otherwise, he is an outsider, dislocated in the world, and draws to another misfit soul in Mora (which makes more sense than the bourgeoisie Oliver being attracted to exotic Irena in the afore mentioned Cat People). Mora plays a mermaid in a sideshow exhibit in the carnival. Her employer is her adoptive father, Captain Sam (Gavin Muir). Johnny’s relationship with Mora is replete with obstacles, the biggest being Mora’s latent belief that she turns into a mermaid during the fill moon. Sam reveals to Johnny that he found Mora on a Mediterranean Island. Sam’s explanation is intentionally vague and masks incestuous desire. Ellen (Luana Anders, with a cup of coffee seemingly glued to her hand), is an employee of the carnival and clearly drawn and attracted to Johnny. But,  Ellen’s  concern for Johnny’s welfare is foremost, since two of Mora’s former boyfriends died of mysterious circumstances. With one beguiling exception, Night Tide is revealed to be entirely psychological.

That one exception is the bizarre presence of one of Mora’s “Sea People.” This presence is intentionally never explained, and even contradicts the revelations of the film. The casting of the Sea Witch is intriguingly layered: she is played by Marjorie Cameron, who happened to be a real life disciple of . The remaining casting sells the film: Hopper, Lawson, Anders, and Muir are superb in their eccentric roles. Harrington’s camera captures them repeatedly in cerebral close-ups.

There has been renewed interest in Harrington lately. Flicker Alley has recently released “The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection“, and Night Tide is receiving a Blu-ray release in October.