For a long time, I considered myself a huge fan of Tod Browning’s 1930s cult-horror curio Freaks, but a recent revisit complicated my feelings on its ethics as entertainment media in a way I never really stopped to consider as a jaded youngster. A circus-performer-turned-director in the pre-Code Hollywood Era, Browning asks his audience to think twice about treating the disabled & disfigured sideshow performers in his cast as inhuman monstrosities, but then parades them through horror genre conventions that require them to be exactly that. Most of Freaks functions like an empathetic hangout comedy where the titular “circus freaks” are afforded screentime outside the exploitative context that usually presents them as monsters. However, Browning’s choice of horror genre convention to tell that story eventually sinks them back down to that exploitative, dehumanizing lens. That exact self-contradiction of phony empathy for disabled & disfigured performers justifying Hollywood’s continued exploitation of those very same people for cheap entertainment is largely the subject of the new melancholy meta-comedy Chained for Life (which borrows its title from a drama starring Freaks vets The Hilton Sisters). An acerbic, behind-the-scenes satire on the set of a European auteur’s first English-language film (after building mystique around himself as a former circus performer runaway), Chained for Life starts by darkly poking fun at Freaks’s legacy in particular, but then expands its critiques to encompass all of Hollywood filmmaking, horror and beyond, from the Studio System past to present day.
Although set in modern day and guided by a post-modern narrative structure, Chained for Life still carries the tone of Old Hollywood pastiche. The supposedly artsy-fartsy indie film with “European sensibilities” its fictional crew is filming feels like an especially sleazy, colorized artifact from Universal’s Famous Monsters cycle. Among a cast of genuinely disabled & disfigured performers with abnormalities like gigantism, conjoined twinning, and disfiguring tumors, a “slumming-it” famous actress (Teeth’s Jess Weixler) gets attention & adoration from the press for “bravely” playing a blind woman. Chained for Life asks, somewhat cheekily, what the difference is between an able-bodied actor playing disabled and an actor performing in blackface, offering real-life award-winning examples like Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Daniel Day Lewis as food for thought. The actress’s initial awkwardness around her disfigured cast members is complicated by her increasingly intimate relationship with her co-star (Under the Skin’s Adam Pearson) whose neurofibromatosis exaggerates his facial features with large, appearance-altering tumors. A hint of schmaltzy Old Hollywood romance bleeds over from the movie the co-leads are filming to their “real” backstage dynamic, but Chained for Life is less interested in developing that dynamic than it is in exploring the social divisions between its abled & disabled crew and indulging in the loopy, post-modern structure of its meta-Hollywood satire. As the divisions between the crew break down, so do the divisions between the movie and the movie-within-the-movie, so that any linear romance melodrama or personal-growth narratives are lost to more academic, intellectually detached pursuits.
For a small-budget indie drama shot on super-16mm filmstock, Chained for Life is ambitiously sprawling in its narrative. Its non-linear, loopily meta plot structure allows it to feature a considerably large cast of well-defined characters (although one largely anchored by Pearson & Weixler). Outside its Beware of a Holy Whore film industry satire, the movie also stages a background police investigation for a string of local violent attacks by a disfigured man, subverting the audience’s cravings for this tradition of exploitation by never showing his face as the mystery unfolds. At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disfigured people are represented onscreen at large. This is an ambitious work with broad political & cinematic ideas that far outweigh its scale & budget, which is the exact balance you’d generally want from indie releases on the film festival circuit (perhaps explaining its Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival). That ambition is only amplified by its willingness to frankly discuss a socially award, taboo subject while admitting its own medium’s limitations in addressing it.