Sunday, February 3, 2008

How Long Can You Look? - Freaks

So I finally got a chance to watch the 1932 classic, "Freaks". I found it to be an unsettling experience. It wasn't particularly scary, but I was unnerved at the use of actual people who were born without limbs, conjoined and a myriad of other variables. It wasn't that I was disturbed by them physically (OK, maybe I was a little bit), but I felt uncomfortable staring at them. I was staring at them because Todd Browning's camera was staring at them, inviting the viewer to look long and hard at these people.

Now I normally attempt to treat all people the same, no matter what they look like. Staring is not something polite people do, and this movie made me feel less then polite. Still the overarching story is plain, the sideshow folk are more adjusted and fun loving than the "normal" people in this movie. In the end the bad people are punished and people without limbs crawl in the mud.

Still this got me thinking about horror in general. One aspect of gross out horror is that it forces you to look at something you would rather not see, or something that you would hope to never see. The camera focuses lovingly on those moments where flesh is pierced and living flesh is turned dead.

However in this film, the camera is pointed at humans who are shown to be just like you and me except for their massive physical differences. Is this supposed to be horrifying? Or is the horror from the way the beautiful people treat the sideshow folk? In a way I found the movie to have a mixed message. This film is usually classified as a horror film, and the image of these sideshow performers crawling through mud armed with blades and obviously thirsting for blood made me feel that I was supposed to be disturbed by them. Instead I was cheering them on! Go FREAKS!

In the end I appreciated Todd Browning's skill behind the camera. I appreciated the way the story moved quickly and created some interesting characters. But I was unclear on the horror. If there is one thing a horror movie should be clear on, it's the idea of what scares you.

Was Browning trying to make his own version of a gross out movie? What was he daring us to look at? Where do you stand on gross out horror films and books? Is there more skill in the gross out shock or in the slow creeping dread?

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