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Release Date: October 17th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1925

Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers - The Criterion Collection

Overview -

Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers consists of three of his most iconic films including Freaks, The Mystic, and The Unknown. For being more than 100 years old, these movies look and sound better than they ever have before with brand new 1080p HD transfers and new audio tracks. The surplus of bonus features is much welcome and gives more insight into the movies and Browning himself. MUST-OWN!

 

The world is a carnival of criminality, corruption, and psychosexual strangeness in the twisted pre-Code shockers of Tod Browning. Early Hollywood’s edgiest auteur, Browning drew on his experiences as a circus performer to create subversive pulp entertainments set amid the world of traveling sideshows, which, with their air of the exotic and the disreputable, provided a pungent backdrop for his sordid tales of outcasts, cons, villains, and vagabonds. Bringing together two of his defining works (The Unknown and Freaks) and a long-unavailable rarity (The Mystic), this cabinet of pre-Code curiosities reveals a master of the morbid whose ability to unsettle is matched only by his daring compassion for society’s most downtrodden.

OVERALL:
Must Own
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
2-Disc Blu-ray Set
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
203
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Release Date:
October 17th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Freaks

When anybody is talking about the film director Tod Browning, one film comes to mind real quickly. That film would be Freaks from 1932 which changed the horror genre from that point going forward. There are many essays and people who would call Tod Browning out as being an exploitative filmmaker, but on the contrary, he was the only person making films that portrayed real people with disabilities at the time. Even to this day, there is nobody like Browning who pushed the bounds in many different genres by showcasing these people. Specifically with Freaks, there is nothing exploitative about them being shows here, many of whom were carnival performers or real people who made a living at these shows. 

Either way, Freaks is still scary on a different level that no other horror movie has under its belt. That element is that horror can come from any corner of the world or any surrounding without having a stereotypical supernatural element or monster. Browning was so effective in his craft that he created this terrifying atmosphere in what's supposed to be one of the happiest places to be entertained. And having real-life people and not actors portray some of the characters here, further drove home the notion that horror can rear its head at any moment, such as the case with Freaks. 

Everybody has heard the lines "Gooble Gobble, one of us" by a variety of actors in films over the years, but that originated with Freaks as it follows the story of a group of circus performers where an unlikely one-sided romance develops between a little person and the beautiful princess of the show. She and her fellow stong-man performer devise a plan to poison this little person to inherit his fortune, but once the other performers get wind of her treachery, they turn on her in the most diabolic way imaginable. But going back to the exploitativeness of it all, there's nothing that could offend anyone as the movie reveals how normal and real these people are. They look for love romance, friendship, and ways to make a living just like anybody else, however, they have special gifts that can entertain people. And by flipping that element around into something horrifying is one of the scariest set of events committed to film.

The acting is superb here and how Browning frames each sequence is something that has been copied in so many films where someone can see something different in the background after each repeated viewing, like in Hereditary by Ari Aster. This is Browning's crowning opus and is a movie that continues to spark debate amongst its viewers and historians as being one of the scariest movies out there. And the funny part about it is, the short story is way more violent and scarier than the film alludes to, which is saying a lot. Freaks will be around for another 100 years for people to discover and hopefully one day, there will be an authentic remake. 

 

The Unknown

Before Freaks was a worldwide phenomenon, Tod Browning entered the three-ring circus with The Unknown in 1927. His favorite performer Lon Chaney joined him and a young Joan Crawford to tell a tale of romance inside the strange world of tracking circus performers. While Freaks operates at a heightened level of horror, The Unknown keeps its roots level in a romantic drama piece, but with some elements of terror. And being the silent film this is, the amazing camera work and nuance tone are what make The Unknown work so well today almost 100 years later.

With words like romantic drama, anyone could assume that The Unknown is an old-timey period piece about two people falling in love and overcoming the odds and obstacles that lay in front of them. In true Tod Browning fashion, this picture goes to different, scary places and ruminates more on unhealthy obsession rather than mutual romance. Such is the case with modern-day performers and celebrity culture, proving that Browning was a century ahead of the curve. The Unknown keeps tabs on a circus performer named Alonzo (Lon Chaney) who goes through life without hands. He's a master knife thrower in the circus with the help of his little partner named Cojo.

Little does anyone know that Alonzo actually does have hands but hides them well, has committed crimes across the country, and is an outlaw on the run. Where the obsession cues come in is when Alonzo falls in love with the circus boss' daughter Zanzi (Crawford) who doesn't like anyone to touch her, leaving Alonzo the perfect candidate for her intimacy, even though the strong bruting gentlemen of the carnival is vying for her hand as well. Back in 1927, Browning created the suspense with this odd matchup by conjuring up twists and turns that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud and dive deeper into the awkward obsessive love rather than the romantic side of intimacy between two people. The Unknown still packs a gut punch to this day and has some of Lon and Crawford's best early work.

 

The Mystic

A couple of years before The Unknown, Tod Browning made a magic thriller film titled The Mystic which served as inspiration for the original and remake movies of Nightmare Alley. Browning wasn't able to get Lon Chaney for this film, but it wasn't necessary this time around. Browning constructs the tension in each sequence of The Mystic so tightly that there is barely any room to breathe even though the audience is in on the gag and mistrust that is happening with the characters in the film. And that's what makes The Mystic such a memorable movie 100 years after its release.

The Mystic can sit right next to those magician films that Nolan and Norton are known for, and it is quite evident that Guillermo Del Toro was excited for Nightmare Alley in regards to this early Browning movie that went on to be more popular in the book version followed by the movie and its modern release. An American con man named Nash crosses paths with three gypsies who make their living by performing magic and illusions for people. These three artists are masters at what they do where Nash recognizes the dollar amounts they can conjure up given the right audience.

Nash somehow relocates himself and these three gypsies to the United States and has them perform seances for grieving people to connect and contact their dead loved ones. Word gets around to high society where everyone is paying top dollar for these illusionistic seances. The big score comes when an orphaned girl wants to contact her dead father and is told to send all of her fortune to the gypsies and Nash. Everything begins to unfold which is where Browning allows for each character to achieve moments of redemption or crime and the audience never knows which path they will go down. It's a masterclass in silent storytelling that only Browning can do by gifting these small moments of surprising character arcs throughout the film that nobody will see coming. And it's with The Mystic that so many filmmakers like Del Toro flock to when creating their visions. Still, a century later, The Mystic holds up as one of those great films about magic and cons.

 

 

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray

Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers performs its way to Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection. The spine number is 1194 and has two discs. One disc has two films while the other houses Freaks. The cardboard case with a cardboard sleeve is fully illustrated to look like a circus flyer for the bizarre. The booklet looks like a journal as well. 

Video Review

Ranking:

Freaks

Freaks comes with a brand new 1080p HD transfer via Criterion. According to the booklet, this new digital master was created from a 35mm dupe negative and a 35mm safety print which were both scanned in at 5K resolution. Comparing that old 2004 DVD release of the film to this new Criterion image, the results are magnificent. This is the best the film has ever looked at. There are no more super grainy images that fluctuate and swarm. The hazy footage from the DVD release has been fixed this time around to give that authentic crystal clear picture. The black and white color saturations are pitch perfect and the detail reveals amazing closeups of gestures and skin profiles. This is a robust-looking movie given how old it is now and one that is beautiful in modern times. There might be a few sequences that fluctuate with clarity, but this is a source issue, and it's assumed that Criterion has outdone itself here.

The Unknown

The Unknown comes with a new 1080p HD transfer from Criterion. According to the booklet and on-screen credits, this new transfer was not an easy one. The new image comes from two original prints, one being a French version and the other a Czech option, both coming to the table with a ton of damage. The two versions were then manually restored together. The result is something that looks great for such an older movie, but there are a ton of instances where it looks like two different prints. The transitions are chaotic and the brightness doesn't always match. That being said, the detail is surprisingly clear and the depth of field in this 100-year-old film looks amazing today. It's not the best-look movie due to it being around for more than a century, but Criterion gave its best effort and it looks solid. 

The Mystic

The Mystic comes with a new 1080p HD transfer from Criterion. According to the booklet, this is a new digital master that was created from the 35mm safety that was scanned in at 2K resolution. The film has never looked so good as it does here. For a film that is 100 years old, there is not much to gripe about. The image stability is wonderful without any flutter or jitters. The detail is more advanced giving way to textures and facial imperfections in closeups. The black-and-white color spectrum looks as good as it can but has varying degrees of brightness in different scenes, which is a source issue. There are still some specks and dirt here and there, but given the age and source of this surviving print, this is one fantastic upgrade from Criterion. 

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Tod Browning's Sideshow Shocker Collection comes to Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. A Two-Disc BD-50 set, the discs are housed in a thin digipak with slipcase. Freaks gets its own disc with The Unkown and The Mystic occupying the second. Also included is a booklet containing photos, essays, and restoration information. 

 

Audio Review

Ranking:

Freaks

This release comes with an LPCM 1.0 mono audio mix that does the trick. There are still some fluctuations in the volumes and tin-canned sound here and there, but overall this is a good-sounding audio track. The dialogue is mostly understandable and the score brings a great presence to the screen. The sound effects are also on par with everything else. 

The Unknown

An LPCM 2.0 track is given to this film that has a new score composed by Philip Carli last year. The piano sounds wonderful and gives those suspenseful moments some gusto. Remember, this is a silent film so this music-only track should satisfy those fans with this new version. 

The Mystic

Another LPCM 1.0 audio mix comes with this movie and has a brand new score that was composed by Dean Hurley. This is not a reproduction of the score like in The Unknown above. But there are some new elements to the sounds that create a haunting atmosphere with different noises in the background. It's a great-sounding new mix that should satisfy everyone.

Special Features

Ranking:

There are 228 minutes of bonus material included here along with two new audio commentary tracks. Historians, critics, and scholars all come to talk about the film here. Also on board are some alternate endings and a different prologue. 

Freaks

  • Audio Commentary - A brand new audio commentary by historian David Skal who talks about the making of the film in great detail, the life and work of Tod Browning, the deleted scenes, alternate endings, and more.
  • The Sideshow Cinema (HD, 64 Mins.) - The documentary from the DVD release appears here and has a fantastic array of interviews with numerous creatives and historians talking about the effect and genius of Tod Browning and his film Freaks. 
  • Spurs (HD, 48 Mins.) - David Skal reads the original, more horrifying short story that this film is based on. 
  • Portraits From Freaks (HD, 11 Mins.) - Here are some images of the performers in Freaks.
  • Prologue (HD, 3Mins.) - The fully restored prologue to the film. 
  • Alternate Endings (HD, 7 Mins.) - David Skal comments on the numerous other endings for the movie that were ultimately not used. 
  • Ticklish Podcast (HD, 52 Mins.) - A few critics and bloggers talk about the representation of disabled people in Freaks. 
  • Criterion Booklet - Insides is a 38-page illustrated booklet that features essays, film information, and transfer notes.

The Unknown

  • Audio Commentary - David Skal talks about the film, Browning, the nature of the production, and the lasting effect it's had on audiences and cinema. 
  • Sideshow Tod (HD, 33 Mins.) - Author Megan Abbot discusses Tod Browning's life and career and his infatuation with the strange and bizarre. 

The Mystic

  • Intro (HD, 10 Mins.) - David Skal introduces the film and talks about Tod Browning, the film, and the many elements that make this movie memorable while comparing it to others. 

Final Thoughts

The Criterion Collection has done it again with Tod Browning's Sideshow Shocker Collection which collects three of Browning's most famous pieces of work, including The Mystic, The Unknown, and Freaks. The new 1080p HD video presentations look better than ever and the new audio mixes sound wonderful. The wealth of bonus materials is outstanding and the films themselves are still relevant and amazing. MUST-OWN!