The Morbid Imagination » Freaks

Greatest Horror Movies, Runners-Up

Posted in Movies on September 23rd, 2009 by admin

In my last post, I made the case that Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion (1965) merited consideration as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. What other films should be on that list?

How about the film that inspired Repulsion, along with dozens of other movies in the early 1960s? Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a box office smash and a cultural milestone. It didn’t invent the psycho killer movie (that might have been Hitchcock’s own film The Lodger) but it cemented it as a distinct genre and laid down some of the rules. (Killer driven by childhood trauma, hidden identity, shower scenes, etc…) It’s fair to say that, without Psycho, there would have been no Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), or Repulsion.

What makes Psycho such a great horror film? I think that it is the collision of the seamy, everyday small evils of flawed humans with murderous, inhumanly insane evil. It’s not that Marion Crane deserves her awful fate but that her own very human weaknesses and desires lands her in a place where real evil awaits. Psycho gets us to identify with Marion, feel ashamed for sharing voyeuristicthrills with her killer, experience horror at the final revelation, all at the same time. Brilliant.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is also a psycho killer film, but one turned inside out. While following the pursuit of one killer we meet one that is ten times worse, but safely incarcerated. Instead of a familiar, linear string of spectacular murders, we are drawn in to the interplay between the insecure young FBI agent and the deadly, brilliant Hannibal Lecter. In fact, only three people die during the course of the movie, one of them the killer Jamie Gumb at the hands of Agent Starling.

What makes The Silence of the Lambs a great horror movie? For me, it is the slow buildup of the character of Hannibal Lecter. We hear all kinds of anecdotes about how terrible and dangerous he is, but his scenes with Agent Starling render him almost likable. Then he escapes and in the course of doing so, confirms every fear that he is not only dangerous but utterly inhuman and evil. He is the bogeyman, and the lamer, lesser bogeyman is brought to justice but he escapes.

My final runner-up for greatest horror movie is Freaks (1932). Directed by Tod Browning, Freaks remains the most unexpected mainstream film release ever. In the successful horror movie cycle that began a year early with Browning’s Dracula, Freaks was greenlit without much apprehension. Imagine the shock that studio executives experienced when Browning delivered a film where physically repellent mutants were the sympathetic figures and “normal” humans were the monsters.

What makes Freaks a great horror movie? It’s the fact that after making us comfortable with the freaks, Browning turns things around in the last act and makes them figures of horror wrenched up from our ids. The final effect is disorienting, leaving us questioning the nature of humanity.

I have narrowed the list of what I consider the greatest horror movies down to these four and my final choice based on the fact that I consider all of them perfect films that could not have been improved in any way. There are other films like Frankenstein (1931), Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Peeping Tom (1960) which are great horror films, but which in some way or another just miss the cut.

Also, what these five movies all share is that they render alienness and inhumanity in ways that burrow deep into our subconcious and make the threat they pose more than just existential. We might not only die, these films say, but we may die at the hands of something that comes out of the darkness in our own souls and minds. 

Next post: The Greatest Horror Movie Ever.

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Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments

Posted in Movies on February 7th, 2009 by admin

Sadly, we have regressed to a society where list-making substitutes for real writing, where entire magazines are nothing more than pictures, lists, and five paragraph “articles.” A lot of “Best” lists are generated with rigged, questionable choices designed to generate controversy and attention.

But one list that I have no qualms about is Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” It’s an excellent, well considered list with top-notch commentary from a lot of interesting people. I don’t have any complaints about any of the movies that are included on the list and I commend Bravo for having mixed artsy, more obscure choices with obvious, popular moments.

I’ve trimmed the list down to ten of my favorite moments that artfully scare:

10. (97) Cat People (1942) – The pool scene, a masterpiece that should be taught in film school…

9. (49) Les Diabolique (1955) – The final shock that kills Christina…

8. (15) Freaks – The final scene, in the rain, with the freaks crawling and hopping, amazing that it was made in the 1930s…

7. (38) Peeping Tom – A movie so disturbing that it ruined the career of the director…

6. (84) Blue Velvet – Where do I start? One disturbing scene after another…

5. (26) Seven – The guy on the bed…

4. (45) The Wicker Man (1973)- A skillful build to a horrifying ending made more believable by Edward Woodward’s performance…

3. (55) The Vanishing (1988) - I saw the end coming, but it still creeped me out…

2. (11) Audition – The scenes in her apartment, the guy in the bag…

1. (5) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – The greatest horror movie ever made…

What all of these moments have in common is that they aren’t merely well crafted shocks or jolts, they are culminating or key moments in deeply involving stories. Some of them are dislocating endings that leave you walking out of the theater in a daze. It’s the implications and the dawning awareness of greater horrors that make more than a momentary impact. These are moments that linger…

…who doesn’t love a shiver of remembered horror?

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Diane Arbus and Freaks (1932)

Posted in Art on December 13th, 2008 by admin

Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C 1963

It’s not certain, but likely that her initial viewing of the  revival showing of Freaks (1932) in 1959 strongly influenced Diane Arbus’ subsequent focus on photographing not only the physically deformed but a long string of societal outcasts.

Arbus faced significant resistance during her lifetime in gaining acceptance for her unsparing portraits of deformities, transvestites, strippers, street personalities, and ordinary people captured in arresting moments. Even following her suicide in 1971, when she had gained some measure of respect within the arts community, it was difficult for her admirers to mount an exhibition of her work. She is not without her critics today.

One of the charges leveled against Arbus is that her work exploited and demeaned her subjects. The same charge has been made against Freaks. This is despite the fact that many of Arbus’ subjects were happy with her work and that many of the performers in Freaks, interviewed years later, painted their experience on the film as positive.

Taking that into account, and acknowledging that Freaks is generally a sympathetic portrayal of sideshow performers where the “normal” people are the monsters, you can’t escape the truth that in both cases, deformity and ugliness give these important works their power.

Freaks is one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and it would not have been so if it had relied on putty appliances, costumes, or lighting tricks to change normal actors into freaks. For most of it’s running time, the freaks are portrayed in ordinary domestic situations: playing cards, washing clothes, or discussing circus business. But in the final act, when they turn on the evil bare-back rider and her accomplice the strongman, it is their alieness that supplies the chills.

Arbus’ work plays the same card. My personal favorite Arbus photograph: “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park” seems somewhat staged, which lends credence to the idea that she exploited her subjects, but it’s the final effect which matters. And ultimately, with any piece of art, including Freaks, it is the final effect that should be judged, not the manner of its creation or the feelings of the participants.

Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. - Diane Arbus

Child with Hand Grenade in Central Park

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