‘One of us….one of us…..’, trailing in the sordid slipstream of recent week’s horror efforts ambles Freaks, one of the cult movies to end all cult movies, a controversial 1932 midnight movie classic which I have been meaning to capture since I embarked on my Universal Monsters season a couple of years ago. Strictly speaking the film doesn’t lurk under that genre umbrella for a number of reasons that we’ll nervously approach later, but as a notorious example of a pre-code, early talkie terror this is widely regarded as an early example of truly grotesque and outré cinema. This screening marked my first visit to the recently opened Regent Street cinema, and while I’ll get into specifics a little later I was very impressed with the holistic experience, with the freshly painted facilities, screening experience and frugal economics all contributing to a welcome addition to London’s cinema landscape. Sight & Sound ran a lengthy article this month on the recent proliferation of boutique cinemas in the capital, with both the new Bloomsbury refurbishment and Regent Street representing the high profile vehicles in what some are claiming as a rather risky investment. With the 21st century offering consumers hundreds and thousands of films at their fingertips through streaming options, with home theatre systems becoming more affordable and the inappropriate activity of inconsiderate fellow viewers driving antipathy upwards how do you lure the punters out to the flicks? Well, some organisations seem to have gambled on providing a bespoke leisure experience, offering unique environments and state-of-the-art screening technology, alongside an eclectic programme of classics and favourites from cinemas broad shouldered history. I don’t wish to be a tease as I can’t get into details for confidentially reasons, but in my current assignment I have been intimately involved with the exhibition arm of the film industry, surveying details such as developers consortium, building designs and the so called ‘end-user experience’, it’s all been quite fascinating as a first hand immersion in the one of the key components of cinemas industrial model – where you actually expose the damn product to the world and purloin the punters money.
Anecdotally then I can advise you that huge investment is being pursued by both national and the smaller ‘art-house’ chains whom are expanding rapidly, good news for us cinema fans and a development which contradictorily seems to be supported by pure economics – if everyone’s staying home due to climbing ticket prices and distracting phone use and chatter, then how exactly are returns up 10% this summer? Y’see, already this review is spinning out of control as I should be talking about Freaks, director Tod Browing’s notorious vengeance is a ‘dish best served with an egg’ fable. Set in what appears to be a Eastern European situated travelling circus the film follows a Siamese twin narrative, the main strand following scheming trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) seduction of sideshow midget Hans (Harry Earles) in order to purloin his sizeable inheritance, while also screwing circus strong man Hercules (Henry Victor) on the side. The romantic yin to such a sexually provocative yang Freaks also harbours a standard issue romance between cabaret performer Venus (Leila Hyams) and the circus clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), an aligning thread of ‘normal’ people conducting ‘normal’ coupling which I assume was used to dilute any accusations that the film was only concerned with its explosively lurid subject matter.
I say lurid as the film primarily focuses on the so-called Freaks of the title, the physically distorted, ergonomically unusual homo-sapiens whose appearances and visages have cruelly seen them cast out from traditional, polite society. What could be a exploitative, cruelly positioned picture is quite the opposite, with a small grain of verité believability despite the unusual subject matter, perhaps culled from the fact that Browning (who was raised in a wealthy, privileged family) actually ran away from home and spent some of his early years with a travelling, carny style posse. His career arose alongside the so-called grandfather of film D.W.Griffith, both of them early pictorial pioneers at the Biograph company, Browning acting in over fifty two-reelers at the birth of the industry. His prolific career spanned the advent of the talkies, and like some of the older directors he was wracked with personal torments and demons, a severe alcoholic he found great difficult securing assignments in the twilight of his career. This self-destruction turns to acerbic humanism in Freaks, alongside the Lugosi Dracula his best known contributions to the seventh art. Through a restrained objectivity he adamantly refuses to pity or exploit his cast of unusual souls, he doesn’t patronise their ‘plucky spirit’ and treats them with more respect than you’d imagine from this pre-censorship era, in fact while almost all the ‘normals’ are portrayed as the most venal, adultereous thieves and swindlers the ‘freaks’ have their own virtuous moral code – they look out for each other, they protect each other, they don’t judge and have no cloaked motives that drives their behaviour. The acting style is arch and theatrical in the extreme, sometimes embarrassingly so, but if you dismiss these vintage details and see beyond the monotone performances a sympathetic heart beats quietly in the DNA of the film. Freaks opts for a Grimm’s fairy tale aura rather than grasp for any realistic purchase, through to its finale framed opening which prefigures the lucid moral tales of Eerie or Tales From The Crypt by a few decomposing decades.
One of the most memorable appearances in the film is that of Johnny Eck who had a fascinating life, and I’m excited to hear that a biographical screenplay has been floating around Tinseltown for years with many ‘A’ list level interest attached. As mentioned I was tempted to assimilate this into Universal monsters season but after an internal debate I decided it didn’t quite conform for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously Freaks was an MGM production, an unusual choice for a studio which concentrated on glittering melodrama’s and expertly choreographed Busby Berkley fripperies. This was the then biggest studio’s approach to keep the tills ringing during the height of the devastating depression, supplying an exhausted American with pure escapism and glamour rather than holding a mirror to the continents social and financial woes. Secondly the Universal series are about monsters which of course these people are not, in the Universal series the unholy apparitions are creatures from the id or beyond the shadowy veils of science and superstition, while the freaks are human beings outcast from society purely on judgements of their physical appearance – so who’s the real monster in that equation? The films atmospheric rain drenched finale is truly the stuff of surreal half-recovered nightmares, as the community finds strength in numbers to expel its violators, lumbering with express murderous purpose as lighting sheathes through the sky – (shudders).
So to the Regent Street cinema itself. The sites fascinating history is reason enough for a visit without the movie to massage a motive, it was the home of the UK’s first cinema following the Lumiere’s five-month display of their fascinating magic lantern cinematheque back in 1896, as well as being the site of the UK’s first screening of an X-rated movie back in 1951. The art-deco interior is much larger and expansive than I expected, with a acute pitch of tiered seats stretching back to the well equipped projection booth – 70mm, 35mm and 4K digital are all catered for. The sightlines are excellent and the screen larger than I anticipated, although the leg room is a little restrictive, so I can’t imagine suffering through Warhol’s Empire or perhaps Resan here. The crowning moment however was when the lights dimmed, the curtains peeled back and then realigned themselves to the boxy 1:33 ratio Academy ratio of the 1930’s, this was a nice presentational touch which stresses the devotion the cinema has towards the projected experience. It’s also pretty darn cheap at 12 quid a ticket during a weekend matinée, that’s 33% cheaper than the usual West end prices, but if you’re planning a glass of wine with your Bergman or Godard then you’d best prepare an independent financial statement – you’re looking at £7 for a glass of house white or red as far as I could see. Is that expensive for wine? I guess so, but still if like me you don’t go to the cinema to get wasted you should be OK. Now, can someone please explain how yet another new cinema, and one situated right on my fucking doorstep has also opened in recent weeks, and no-one thought to invite me to an inaugural inspection? This requires some furious investigation…