The first American picture to be marketed as an unambiguously supernatural horror experience (released on Valentine’s Day, 1931) was Tod Browning’s Dracula starring the iconic Bela Lugosi. Universal were at that time in a financial jam, thanks in part to the economic travails of the Great Depression. They found their saviours in the gothic texts of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Rival outfits quickly noticed that audiences were flocking to the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) and box-office receipts don’t lie. MGM (always the classiest studio in Hollywood) decided they too wanted a slice of the lucrative pie, and turned to studio old boy Browning to deliver them their own smash hit.
The ‘Loving Cup’ wedding feast scene is truly iconic (“One of us, one of us!”), and the ending – in which the band of social outcasts crawl beneath the caravans, on a dark and stormy night, to exact revenge – is among the creepiest sequences in horror history. Throughout the 1920s Browning and Lon Chaney, as others have pointed out, practically invented screen ugliness. The lauded actor, known as “the Man with a Thousand Faces”, turned his profession into a physically masochistic process. He would contort his body for hours on end and his ghoulish makeup effects were legendary even in their day. With Freaks Browning completely undermined the studio’s key tenets on beauty, desire, entertainment and cinematic opulence. Perhaps that is what MGM could not abide most of all? Undoubtedly flawed, Freaks is also admirably bonkers and quite simply unforgettable.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn