FREAKS is indeed like a freakshow. We enter hopefully, morbidly, expecting terrors to make us put our hands in front of our eyes--and then peek through our fingers. But like visitors to a carnival sideshow we leave feeling restless, vaguely disgusted, and even cheated by a show which lives up to none of its Brattle brouhaha.
Good horror, like good art, depends on suggestion. The masters of horror are those who force the audience to use their own imaginations, to conjure their own terrors. (As the chestnut goes, Hollywood could never match radio for glamorous sets.) Freaks own director, Tod Browning, had just finished Dracula, where audiences never actually saw so much as a fang or a drop of blood.
Freaks is at a disadvantage because Browning apparently felt that for the movie to work, the Freaks needed our sympathy; so he took pains to present them as well-rounded, even conventional people. Plot is simply enough the story of two normal, albeit perverse, individuals who try to take advantage of the little people. Unnecessarily fearful our emotions will attach to the beautiful trapeze artist and her strongman lover, Browning keeps telling us how freaks are people like anyone else.
But by emphasizing their normality the director damns them with faint praise. He might better have either found their special beauty (as he did in Dracula), or left them in the ominous darkness of their baskets until they limped, wriggled, and crawled forth to execute a plausible vengeance on their enemies. From deformity Browning could have wrung mature terror instead of adolescent fright.
Freaks is witless. Sensitive acting by the midget Frieda (whom Browning often shoots in romantic soft-focus closeup) and several shots in the climactic sequence, are the film's only twitches of life.
However, two fine shorts run the first forty-five minutes at the Brattle, and might alone be worth the price. Both are art-house standards, and worthily so. Luis Bunuel's first film, Un Chien Andalou (a 1928 collaboration with artist-entrepreneur Salvador Dali), will either fascinate or frustrate with its free-association stream of symbols. (If you get completely lost in these fifteen unusual minutes, just remember violence symbolizes sex, the dead mules on the piano symbolize sex, and ants symbolize masturbation.) Exploited sometimes as Bunuel's creation or more accurately as Dali's, Chien Andalou exhibits the most youthful characteristics in both. Dali's frantic desire to shock the bourgeoisie (viz. the eyeslicing) works with Bunuel's iconoclasm (the Christ-parody). In 1929, Bunuel derided the "imbeciles" who looked for beauty in this "despairing, passionate call to murder"; but from an aesthetic as well as a historical perspective, it's still worth seeing.
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (unpublicized in the Brattle brochure) is a masterpiece, occasionally faulted by tedium. Directed by Robert Enrico, the film was first prize winner at Cannes in '62. It is a half-hour tour de force, wordless but never silent.