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.
The most transgressive film produced by a major American studio in the 1930s, Tod Browning’s crowning achievement has haunted the margins of cinema for nearly one hundred years. An unforgettable cast of real-life sideshow performers portray the entertainers in a traveling circus who, shunned by mainstream society, live according to their own code—one of radical acceptance for the fellow oppressed and, as the show’s beautiful but cruel trapeze artist learns, of terrifying retribution for those who cross them. Received with revulsion by viewers upon its initial release, Freaks effectively ended Browning’s career but can now be seen for what it is: an audacious cry for understanding and a singular experience of nightmarish, almost avant-garde power.
The most celebrated and exquisitely perverse of the many collaborations between Tod Browning and his legendary leading man Lon Chaney, The Unknown features a wrenchingly physical performance from “the Man of a Thousand Faces” as the armless Spanish knife thrower Alonzo (he flings daggers with his feet) whose dastardly infatuation with his beautiful assistant (Joan Crawford)—a woman, it just so happens, who cannot bear to be touched by the hands of any man—drives him to unspeakable extremes. Sadomasochistic obsession, deception, murder, disfigurement, and a spectacular Grand Guignol climax—Browning wrings every last frisson from the lurid premise.
A fantastically atmospheric but rarely seen missing link in the development of Tod Browning’s artistry, set amid his favored milieu of shadowy sideshows and clever criminals, The Mystic provides a striking showcase for silent-era diva Aileen Pringle, who sports a series of memorably outré looks (courtesy of art-deco designer Erté) as Zara, a phony psychic in a Hungarian carnival who, under the guidance of a Svengali-like con man (Conway Tearle), crashes—and proceeds to swindle—American high society. Browning’s fascination with the weird is on full display in the eerie séance sequences, while his subversive moral ambiguity extends surprising sympathy to even the most seemingly irredeemable of antiheroes.