Home releases bring with them a certain weight of expectation for cinephiles and film fans. For newer ones, it’s the promise that they’ll always be available, safe from a distributor or studio’s license dissolution or server deletion. For older films, it’s the promise to see them renewed in some way, saved from the perpetual erasure of time. It’s on the latter that the latest release and newest addition to The Criterion Collection finds itself, a three-film collection of writer/director Tod Browning’s works, each of which carrying the burden of significance. The first, 1925’s The Mystic, has been largely, up until now, unavailable for viewing; the second, 1927’s The Unknown, is cobbled together from two different reel sets, each with a different state of decay; and, third, 1932’s Freaks, is a film which has been altered and edited into many forms and is very much due a recontextualization for the modern era. Now, put together in what Criterion calls “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers,” these three films are gathered along with a bevy of bonus materials to help keep their significance alive.
Each of these specific Tod Browning films involve, in some fashion, the circus, specifically those who would be members of the sideshow. In The Mystic, a con man (Conway Tearle) convinces a sham psychic (Aileen Pringle) and two of her compatriots to come with him to America to steal from the well-to-do only for the fiction to become a little too real and alliances broken. In The Unknown, the esteemed actor Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera) portrays armless knife thrower Alonzo who is in love with his assistant Nanon (Joan Crawford), except he’s not who people think he is and his violent past leads to terror for all who stand in his way. In Freaks, a greedy trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), tries to take advantage of a fellow performer, the infatuated Hans (Harry Earles), in order to steal his fortune, but her disdain for the sideshow performers of whom Hans is a part is not a secret, leading to a revenge most poetic.
Before getting into the films and how they play now within a more modern context, let’s address the restorations themselves, as that’s going to be the biggest draw for anyone interested in this collection. Based on the information provided by Criterion, each of the films is a 2K digital restoration. Both The Unknown and The Mystic include a new score, the former by composer Philip Carli (The Scar of Shame) and the latter by composer Dean Hurley (Looks Like Kill). If one is like this reviewer and coming to these two films with fresh eyes, there’s no noticeable issues with the accompanying score for both silent films. Instead, what most are going to notice with all three films is how they’re still very much showing their age. This is not a problem, necessarily, so much as the idea of a restoration tends to conjure up a pristine modern visual component and that does not describe these in the slightest. There is visible aging, obvious skips from one frame to another, shifts in lighting, and other aspects that are as much in keeping with the way films of that time looked, but also films that may not have been stored with care in mind. Considering the content and initial reaction to each film, one should be more impressed that some version of these films exists at all or, in the case of The Unknown, in reasonable enough condition in two different sets to be combined to create a usable whole. In this vein, don’t come looking for something in the quality of the recent The Princess Bride (1987) 4K UHD remaster or even the 4K HD digital remaster of Hollywood Shuffle (1987); rather, shift your expectations so that while there’s not extreme clarity or color balance, these are still remarkable presentations from which audiences can continue to examine and discuss complex issues of representation and cultural impact.
In our modern era, the idea of representation and its impact on audiences is still an active discussion. Is it enough for a film to be made about a major player in world history or should the lead actor also be of the same race, culture, religion, or creed in order for the artistic representation be considered respectful? There’s a great deal to unpack, almost to the point of toxic positivity, yet, one cannot argue that these three Tod Browning films were active in the prevalence of exploitation cinema and the continued perception of sideshow performers as threats to “civil society.” In the first two films, the protagonists and antagonists are all able-bodied individuals who utilize trickery to either woo a beloved and protect their identity or to flimflam their way into riches. It doesn’t matter that Chaney’s Alonzo is pretending to be armless in order to hide from the police in Spain, because he still possesses an extra thumb, thereby making him different enough physically to make his malevolence seem like a natural trait of the deformed, thereby perpetuating a stereotype of otherness which permeates a worldview. It also doesn’t matter in The Mystic that none of the principals possess any kind of physical abnormality, it is enough that they are from a foreign land (found performing in Hungry), thereby conflating immigrants and entertainment with distrust that only fuels the fires of paranoia continued by the “America First” folks both in pre-World War II U.S. and now. Both films possess elements that make them challenging for the ways they use otherness to define villainy, while also attributing that to general immigrants and, more specifically, circus performers with disabilities.
This is where Freaks comes in, a film heavy with historical significance. Released as a horror film originally, it would go through a number of edits, resulting in the included version in this set that is roughly 30-minutes shy of its intended length. Of all the reasons why films are edited — pacing, flow, emotional intensity, and more — Freaks got chopped due to the disquiet of the MGM executives and public response. So much so that, alternate endings were devised and, years later, a prologue was added to try to create an excuse for making the film in the form of historical context. In undergrad, back in the early 2000s, a portion of this film was presented in one of my cinema classes and it was my understanding from that snippet (though I cannot remember the context in which it was shown) that the sideshow performers who attacked Cleopatra and Hercules (Henry Victor) were acting maliciously; however, within the narrative, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules who are the villains, looking down upon their fellow performers and trying to murder Hans for his money. While the added epilogue specifically adds dialogue to imply that (a) Hans was not responsible for the actions of the sideshow members and (b) that they took things too far on their own, the setup for the climax isn’t that Cleopatra and Hercules are victims of bloodthirsty fiends (though that is often how the public opts to view them), but that it’s poetic comeuppance for their verbal degradation and violence against one of their own. In fact, none but Han’s former fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles) holds any ill will toward Cleopatra for her interest in Hans, with the famous “One of Us” sequence literally being an initiation of Cleopatra as one of their own via her marriage to Hans. They don’t look down on the pairing or disparage them in any way, it’s literally a celebration, joyous and open. It’s Cleopatra’s cruelty that seals her fate via actions that are a bit more eye-for-an-eye than audiences were ready for at the time. Watching it now, Freaks is not a horror show, despite its form of justice; rather, it’s a drama about acceptance and love and what happens when someone tries to take advantage of a group they see as inferior.
Being that this is a Criterion release, let’s get into what goodies they’ve included in order to make the exploration of Browning’s three films more interesting beyond my own personal feelings. Disc 1 is Freaks, which includes several archived elements to expand the view. This includes an archived documentary about the film; a reading of the short story, Spurs, that serves as the source material for the film; a short program exploring the alternate endings of the film; a video gallery; and, most interesting for cinema fans, a full 2019 audio episode of Ticklish Business, the podcast from film critic and Film Editor for The Wrap Kristen Lopez, that does a deep dive into disability representation in the film. As an admirer of her writing, especially on older Hollywood films, if Ms. Lopez has an opinion on a film, we’re better off for paying attention. Disc 2 contains both The Unknown and The Mystic, with supplemental material contained under each film selection. For The Unknown, this means film commentary, brief information on the score, and an interview with Megan Abbott about Tod Browning. For The Mystic, there’s an introduction from film scholar David J. Skal, as well as brief information on the score.
The packaging is less traditional than the standard Criterion release, but it’s also not a media book either. Having more in common with the Police Story (1985/1988) or Godzilla (1954/1956) combo releases (spines 971/972 and 594 respectively), Sideshow Shockers is a thin cardboard slipcase designed with art by Raphael Geroni that is in keeping with the art styles of the 1920s and early 1930s in a combination design of all three films. Sliding out the disc holder from the left-side, we’re greeted by a yellow stock cardboard with a red trim, the title of the collection printed inside and a sideshow hand pointing to the right, where we open to find the discs. The inside of the cardboard disc holder is yellow and red-striped with a clear two-disc holder for the DVD or Blu-rays to reside in. In the review copy provided by Criterion, Disc 1 was on top and 2 below it. Sitting on top of the disc is the expected Criterion liner booklet, decorated like an essay book that has the title of the collection and the three film titles printed on top. Inside is information and stills on each film, before transitioning to an essay from film critic Farran Smith Nehme, who has written several essays for Criterion previously (shown at the link.)
In a vacuum, these three films are engaging works of drama and horror, stories of human corruption and distrust, tales of misdeeds that unsettle to varying degrees. Each one, by nature of the period in which they were released and how audiences responded to them, have a legacy that must be explored, mulled over, and come to terms with if cinema is going to tell honest stories without exploitation. By making these three films more readily available, especially in an age where cinema is far more about the business aspect than the art, being able to pull these off the shelves and explore them feels like a win for art and art history.
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers Special Features:
- New 2K digital restoration of Freaks, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New 2K digital reconstruction and restoration of The Unknown by the George Eastman Museum, with a new score by composer Philip Carli
- New 2K digital restoration of The Mystic, with a new score by composer Dean Hurley
- Audio commentaries on Freaks and The Unknown and an introduction to The Mystic by film scholar David J. Skal
- New interview with author Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horror
- Archival documentary on Freaks
- Episode from 2019 of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business about disability representation in Freaks
- Reading by Skal of “Spurs,” the short story by Tod Robbins on which Freaks is based
- Prologue to Freaks, which was added to the film in 1947
- Program on the alternate endings to Freaks
- Video gallery of portraits from Freaks
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme
- New cover by Raphael Geroni
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection October 17th, 2023.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.