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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Carnival (originally published 10/95)

This time of year I'm always on the lookout for new books about horror movies and the people who made them. Publishers, who know a thing or two about promotions, generally try to arrange the release of such titles to coincide with the Halloween season. This year, the most interesting title I've seen is "Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre," by David J. Skal and Elias Savada, published by Anchor.

If you conceive of Halloween as the creation of entertainment out of the morbid and the profane, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate Halloween publication. Tod Browning's early experiences as a carnival sideshow barker combined with his survival of a gruesome car crash to produce in him a lifelong fascination with disfigurement and mutilation. This obsession turns up over and over in his films, many of which are regarded as classics of the horror genre. Most of them aren't about monsters at all, but the potent strain of perverse morbidity that runs through them leaves no doubt about which genre they belong to.

"The Unknown" (1927). Browning's favorite actor, not surprisingly, was Lon Chaney Sr. Because of his elaborate and impressive talents with character make-up, Chaney had become known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces." In fact, however, it was more than just his face that was malleable. He also was willing and able to distort his body, even at the cost of considerable discomfort. For this Browning-directed melodrama, Chaney played Alonzo, a circus performer who poses as an armless knife thrower, manipulating the blades with his feet. In fact, his arms are merely bound behind his back for his performances. But when he falls for a woman who is pathologically fearful of being embraced by men, he has his arms amputated for real. In the meantime, however, his beloved has apparently gotten over her fear of men's arms and has become infatuated with the circus strongman. Alonzo's love is instantly transformed into a lust for vengeance, leading him to plot a grisly death for the strongman.

"West of Zanzibar" (1928). This Browning-Chaney collaboration, like many of their films together, repeats the formula of disfigurement and vengeance. It was a popular formula, much like the slasher formula is today, possibly because it tapped into the anger of maimed soldiers who returned from World War I to make their way through life without an arm or leg, or with a disfigured face. In earlier wars, Skal points out, soldiers who sustained such deeply maiming wounds would have died from them in short order, but by the early twentieth century advances in medicine had made such wounds survivable. This, in turn, led to guilt feelings among the maimed soldiers' loved ones, many of whom felt conscience-stricken because of secret feelings of revulsion toward their husbands and fathers, who were, after all, war heroes in addition to being family members. Naturally, most of this anger and guilt was repressed, and emotions that are repressed on a wide scale have a tendency to bubble up in the popular culture, especially movies. In "West of Zanzibar," Chaney plays a bitter man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a fight with a romantic rival. Leaving civilization behind, he withdraws to a remote village in Africa where he holes up and plots his revenge.

"Dracula" (1931). This version of the classic vampire tale was not adapted from Bram Stoker's novel, but rather from the popular stage play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. Bela Lugosi repeated the role he had created on the stage, and the rest, as they say, is history. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the promotional trailer from a re-release of the film.

"Freaks" (1932). This disturbing little movie represents the culmination of Browning's obsession with disfigurement and physical anomalies. Chaney, who could counterfeit such conditions so well, had met an untimely death in 1930. This time, Browning went with the real thing, using actual carnival sideshow attractions in his cast. Once seen, Browning's cautionary tale about the consequences of intolerance toward those who are different may well find its way into your nightmares.

"Devil Doll" (1936). Lionel Barrymore plays a man who has escaped from Devil's Island, where he was sent for a crime he did not commit. Seeking revenge, he appropriates an experimental miniaturization technique to shrink his accomplices to the size of figurines. He then presents them to those who framed him as dolls for their children. When the "dolls" awake from the trance state induced by the shrinking process, they avenge the frame-up in grisly fashion.

Browning was one of the most intriguing filmmakers ever produced by the Hollywood system. Skal and Savada's biography is a fascinating attempt to shed new light on the bruised and obsessive psyche that created these cinematic nightmares.