Category Archives: 31 Days of Horror 2014
When the Annabelle doll made her demonic debut in last year’s The Conjuring, I was looking forward to her self-titled prequel. While I hoped she would become the porcelain face of horror, and take a place on the shelf beside such evil dolls as Chucky and the Poltergeist clown, it doesn’t appear she is quite ready for the honor. More after the jump.
“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
As All Hallows Eve is here, it seems appropriate to close out “The Ten Percent’s” part of Biff Bam Pop‘s 31 Days of Horror with one of the most remarkable, pre-code horror films to come out of Hollywood: Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Despite the fairly standard morality play melodrama of the film’s plot, Freaks continues to have the power to horrify modern audiences, and to perfectly perch viewers on that terribly painful edge of guilt and pleasure that is voyeurism at its finest.
Director Tod Browning’s career began in the silent era, where he became well-known for working with Lon Chaney, “the Man With a Thousand Faces” on such classics as The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), but today he is perhaps most widely recognized as the director of 1931’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Both before and after Freaks, Browning showed a flair for the grotesque, which helped make his work with Chaney incredibly fruitful as Browning created one twisted character after another for Chaney to gleefully realize from the depths of his make up kit and astonishing physical abilities.
With Freaks, however, Browning would take his love of the strange, spooky, and misshapen to a level undreamed of, and simply impossible for even Chaney to create. The film tells the story of a traveling sideshow somewhere in Europe between the wars, and purports to pull back the curtain on the off-stage world of the performers: the freaks. For the most part, the sideshow performers play themselves, just fictionalized. The Siamese twins are Siamese twins. The microcephalics are microcephalics, the bearded lady, the thin man, the half-boy, the human torso, the dog-faced girl, each and every one are the real McCoy.
The plot centers around the doomed love of Hans (Harry Earles), one of the shows dwarfs, for the beautiful acrobat Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Discovering that Hans has inherited a sizable fortune, Cleo hatches a scheme to trick Hans into marrying her, after which she will poison him and make off with the loot and her real lover, the violent strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor). The plot is uncovered in time though, and the freaks take vengeance on this plot against one of their own.
There’s really not much here, but Freaks manages to take this pedestrian little plot to a whole other level by almost relegating it to the territory of background action. The majority of the film is spent showing the everyday lives of the sideshow performers, subtly transforming the viewers’ first fascinated obsession with the freaks’ physical differences into an appreciation for them has human beings, and generally kind and happy ones for all of their apparent difficulties. Cleo and Hercules, normal sized, normal shaped human beings, turn out to be the ones who are truly deformed. They are balanced by the good regular people Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford), but these two are also part and parcel of the show, and the freaks are their chosen family, while Cleo and Herc will commit murder in order to leave the life. It is the “normal people” you have to watch out for.
Which leads to one of the Best. Lines. Ever. when Venus tells Herc that:
“my people are decent circus folks, not dirty rats that would kill a freak to get his money!”
The viewer is sucked in by the freaks’ humanity, we’re with them all the way, and then, like every good morality play, it’s time for the evil-doers to pay the piper, and all of a sudden Browning jerks us right back out of that warm little glow of human fellow-feeling as the freaks come crawling, sliding, stalking silently through the dark and the rain and the mud, blades in hand, to deal out justice in a world that shows none to them. Their physical differences are underlined, even further exaggerated as they form an inexorable tide of writhing, twisted, humanity with eyes that hate. It is an enormously effective series of scenes, even today.
(Spoilers ahead, although the freakin’ film’s 82 years old, so deal with it, Sunshine).
The original ending of the film showed Cleo screaming beside a tree as the freaks approached through the storm. The tree was then hit by lightning and fell on her, crushing her legs. In the final scene, Cleo was seen as the freaks had made her: a legless, scarred human duck, raggedly quacking along in accompaniment to the soprano singing of the castrated Herc. This was deemed too horrific for release, and so the studio shot three equally unsatisfactory alternate endings and gutted some 30 more minutes of the film as objectionable as well. Even so, the film was banned for 30 years in the UK.
Freaks was a commercial failure, but became a cult classic in the 1960s, and has remained one of the most fascinating and unnerving films ever made. In fact, until recently, I would have bet good money that nothing like it could ever be done again (“American Horror Story: Freak Show,” anyone? And seriously, watch Freaks if you like AHS – they’re referencing the film every single episode thus far.) Running just 64 minutes, Freaks plays masterfully on some really dark parts of our psychology, hooking us with our innate voyeurism when it comes to the “other,” forcing us to recognize it, think we’ve overcome it, and then smacking us in the face with the fact that we’re still just meat-puppets for our most primitive lizard brains that read difference as dangerous.
Like I said, it’s always us “normals” who turn out to be the real monsters.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.
Through the Woods
As a child, I remember being terrified when I first heard the story of Bluebeard (“Be bold, be bold…” still runs a shiver down my spine). It may have been the first time I ever heard a truly scary fairy tale—something that toed the line between a fairy story and gruesome horror. Not much later, I was introduced to the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which, as lovers of fairy tales and myths we all discover, are absolutely nothing like the sanitized versions we know from Disney and the children’s section of most bookstores. Some prefer the gruesome ones; some prefer the nicer ones; some prefer a balance. Fairy tales, like most fictions, are totally subjective, but I definitely fell for the darker, bloodier stuff. “What do you mean, they cut her toes off to fit in that slipper?” More after the jump.
If you grew up in Staten Island up in New York, you might have heard the stories of Cropsey, an urban legend of a monstrous boogieman who kidnapped children. Imagine the shock of two documentary filmmakers who returned to their Staten Island home to find there was more truth than legend to the story. Meet me after the jump for my review of Cropsey.
Need something to watch this Halloween??? Look no further than 2014 Biff Bam Popcast Halloween edition, featuring Andy Burns, Glenn Walker, JP Fallavollita, Amanda Blue and Marie Gilbert. We’re talking 31 Days of Horror 2014, the horror movies we love and why, along with some discussion about the recently announced slate of Marvel movies.
This popcast is brought to you by our own Marie Gilbert’s first novel, Roof Oasis, which you can purchase over at Amazon.
The genius of filmmaker Val Lewton is legendary. His themes and use of shadow evoked the German Expressionists of the silent era and brought on a new wave of thinking horror. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts on the first of his horrors, Cat People, its strange sequel and sexy remake.
I love being scared. I love watching a movie and catching myself holding my breath, covering my eyes, or squeezing my date’s hand so hard he’s lost circulation. These are the effects I’m after when I watch a horror film. I want to be terrified, disgusted, shocked. I want to be flat out traumatized when those credits roll, too petrified to even move. But the thing is, sometimes I want all of this and I want to laugh my ass off. Asking too much? Maybe. It’s a bad habit. Regardless, Dr. Giggles gives me what I want.
About a week or so I reviewed the latest film from the Twisted Twins, the sensational Jen and Sylvia Soska. These Vancouver natives have been on an artistic role within the horror genre with their two most recent film, the immediate classic American Mary and their latest effort, See No Evil 2, a throwback slasher film that employs the Soska’s visual sensibilities with their love of all things gruesome and violent. I’m a huge fan of their work, so it was a thrill once again to be able to talk to the twins via email about See No Evil 2, their ongoing relationship with actor Katharine Isabelle and much more (including some pro wrestling chatter too).
Andy Burns: Ok, ladies, this movie was seriously fun from the moment it started. Great jump scares, a killer…killer and super solid performances from everyone involved. So first off, you delivered! As for my first question, how did See No Evil 2 become your follow up to American Mary?
Sylvia Soska: Thank you so much! After the success of Mary, every meeting we took, despite what we were pitching for became a request for us to make a watered down version of what we just made – sexy surgeon Katie doing something or other. It became depressing. Our goal has always been to make something different with each film, even though we really do put our sensibilities pretty thickly into whatever we make. The slasher sub genre was one we really wanted to tackle and we are huge Glenn “Kane” Jacobs fans – this was a great opportunity to make a love letter to slashers.
Jen Soska: We are the fan directors. We love movies, horror, video games, comic books, and WWE (from way back when it was WWF). It was really exciting to be able to take one of our favorite WWE Superstars, Glenn “Kane” Jacobs and be able to recreate his Jacob Goodnight character. We actually started watching wrestling just as Kane was being introduced so being able to work with Glenn was so special to us. We started out as Kane fans and now we are the biggest Glenn Jacobs fans.
Some people also forget that not only did we make American Mary, but also Dead Hooker In A Trunk. We love exploring all the delicious sub genres of horror. One of the things we like to do more than anything is keep our audiences guessing. You see that in our films themselves and we try to do that with the films we select to take on. We never want to repeat ourselves.
It’s so much fun expecting a baby, what with the shopping for little booties and preparing the baby’s room, a new mom-to-be is practically glowing with expectations. But when that little bundle of joy growing inside her is from Hell, she might want to rethink those birth announcements to friends and family. Rosemary’s Baby was birthed in the late sixties and we haven’t recovered since. Read the rest of this entry
OK, so maybe I am a little biased towards blood, violence, and anyone who was on Twin Peaks, but I was a huge fan of this film long before I was into those things. I must have rented this movie on VHS a hundred times as a kid (what were you thinking, Mom?) and watched it over and over. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t remember anything. I mean, I still get lost in the city I’ve been living in my entire life. But for some reason, this movie made itself right at home in my longterm memory bank, and when I rewatched it a few weeks ago I could easily still recite every line, recall the innocence of Fool, the relentlessness of Roach, and all the ways that “Mommy and Daddy” (who are actually -ew- brother and sister) scared the absolute crap out of me. What was it that left such an impression?