The current state of cinema is one that revolves mostly around the bottom line. Big names, big distribution deals and all the usual content we read day in and day out. Basically, the bigger the better. The only facet that isn’t inflating in any way is the size of the risk that filmmakers take to tell their stories.
If you wanted me to get into specifics, I’d be here for hours and one hundred pages later we’d still be in the dark. That’s because the history of risky cinema is labyrinthine in nature, to the point that even Jareth the Goblin King would feel overwhelmed. In today’s filmmaking world, taking a risk with a motion picture is like signing your soul to the devil. If someone wants a fruitful career in the industry, they wouldn’t take a risk. There are plenty of names whispered throughout motion picture lots and studios that could prove my point; too many to name, as a matter of fact. One name, however, I will divulge and that name is Tod Browning.
Here is an artist that, along with his partner in crime, the late Lon Chaney, took the most risks of only mainstream filmmaker. His films were peppered with quirky outcasts because he himself was essentially a quirky outcast. “The Road to Mandalay”, “The Unholy Three”, “Mark of the Vampire”, “The Devil-Doll”- these are films that, despite some major, almost debilitating flaws, stand the test of time. Yes, the plots are sometimes wafer-thin, but I’ve seen enough of his films to know that, at their heart, they were experiments in atmosphere, mood and tension. Furthermore, I challenge anyone to show me a filmmaker who can garner feelings of loss, sadness and unattainable desire as effortlessly and with such subtle beauty as Browning. With that in mind, I will admit that much should be attributed to Browning’s collaboration with Chaney; a collaboration stronger and stranger than most acting and directing duos.
If you are a fan of Browning or classic horror cinema for that matter, you are probably wondering why I left out two of the most famous (and infamous) titles from Browning’s filmography. The reason is to prove that even the most seemingly invincible storytellers can “fail” as a result of taking a great risk.
The story of Browning’s fall from cinematic grace is one that has been told time and time again; sort of like a campfire tale meant to frighten budding filmmakers so they don’t follow in his footsteps. After Browning’s classic adaptation of Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1931, staring Bela Lugosi, he was given free reign to work on any picture he desired. “Freaks” followed soon after in 1932 with much anticipation and anxiety brewing within the industry. Rumors were brewing, detailing grotesque violence, unsavory characters and the disturbing appearance of a number of the film’s less-than-fortunate actors. The truth is, and this is probably why the film was lambasted so heavily upon release, it wasn’t a story as much as it was an all-seeing eye, detailing the daily lifestyle of a community we know little to nothing about. For that reason alone, the film is an incredibly thoughtful depiction, but understandably misconstrued.
Much like the characters it focuses on, “Freaks” became the unwanted and misunderstood motion picture in Hollywood. Nobody wanted to look at it, no one wanted to hear about it, no one even wanted think about it. Almost immediately, Browning found it near impossible to get a job. In an odd case of cruel irony, Browning never achieved the status he did when he first made “Freaks” regardless of the number of pictures that he directed prior to his death.
Today, “Freaks” is considered a classic of horror cinema and rightly so. It’s just a shame that Browning was not able to experience the love given to his most personal and audacious work.
What makes me come back to this picture? It’s not the choppy editing (due to too many chefs in the kitchen and jittery producers) or the less-than-stellar acting (by a number non-professionals, mind you) or the melodramatic turns in the story. It’s because “Freaks” is a film the likes of which will never be seen again. In this overly-PC era that we live in, deformed characters, portrayed by real individuals with disabilities would never make it past the brainstorming phase. And that’s fine. The only person crazy enough, to run the risk of never working again after having such a hit as “Dracula” was and always will be Tod Browning. He was an outsider all his life and, seventy-six years later, he is finally being regarded as the risktaker that, apparently, only Lon Chaney knew he was. But when you think about it. I mean, really think about it, perhaps we, the viewers, took the biggest risk by allowing ourselves to become engrossed by a story and a world that is funny, scary, confusing, sad and, perhaps most important of all, human. For the sign of a true risktaker is one who takes us, sometimes kicking and screaming, out of our comfort zone and forces us to come to terms with our flaws and deepest fears. What’s the risk in that, you ask? Think about it.