Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

The Horrors of Self-Contradiction in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

The 1932 exploitation horror Freaks has always had a reputation for controversy, even losing a third of its original runtime to drastic edits meant to soften its abrasive effect. After the wild success of the Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula for Universal, director Tod Browning was given total freedom to jumpstart MGM’s own horror brand in a project of his choice. Urged by little person performer (and future member of The Lollipop Guild) Harry Earles to adapt the Tod Robbins short story “Spurs” for the screen, Browning chose to draw on his own past as a circus performer for a film that ultimately ruined his career. As a historic, pre-Code horror relic, Freaks has a fascinating cultural cache that only improves every passing year. It’s a film that’s just divisive now as it was over eight decades ago, however, largely because it’s divided in its own dual nature. Freaks is both a deeply empathetic call to arms against the social stigmas that surround its disabled “circus freak” performers and a horrifically exploitative “Get a load of these monsters!” sideshow that defeats its own point. Which side of these warring, self-contradicting intents ultimately overpowers the other is a question largely of genre, for which horror might not have been Browning’s wisest option.

As David Lynch later proved with The Elephant Man, it’s entirely possible to tell a heartfelt, empathetic story about real life sideshow performers through a Universal Monsters aesthetic. In the younger, less nimble days of horror cinema, Browning was a lot less confident about the technique. The majority of Freaks is not a horror film at all, but rather a comedic melodrama that happens to be set in the insular community of a traveling circus. With the campy, braying line deliveries of a John Waters production, the little people, conjoined twins, amputees, and microcephalics of Browning’s cast pal around in what’s essentially a hangout comedy. In a typical joke, two men remark on the intersex performer Josephine Joseph, “Don’t get her sore or he’ll punch you in the face,” and then maniacally laugh as if it’s the funniest thing that’s ever been said. An opening scroll & a carnival barker preface this comedy with a plea for the audience to empathize with its “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs, stressing that they are only human beings whose “lot is truly a heartbreaking one.” As we watch the titular “freaks” live, laugh, and love in the film’s first act, the only detectable trace of horror is in the way they’re treated by able-bodied outsiders. Harry Earles falls for an erotic dancer who plans to marry & poison him in a plot to rob him of his inheritance. She & her strongman secret lover are grotesquely cruel to their “circus freak” co-workers, whom they openly mock for their disabilities. The comedic melodrama of the film’s opening concludes with the two wicked souls making out in front of Earles & laughing in his face on their wedding night. When hiws fello circus performers famously chant, “One of us! One of us! We accept her!” to welcome the new bride into the fold, she shrieks “Freaks!” in their faces and violently rejects the offer, campily revealing who the True Monsters are.

The self-contradiction at the core of Freaks kicks in immediately after that wedding celebration. The film shifts focus from the horrors of social cruelty to the supposed horrors of its disabled cast as they exact revenge on the erotic dancer who is gradually poisoning their “circus freak” brethren. Although Browning’s script makes a point to stress the humanity of his characters in the film’s opening half, he leans in heavily on the exploitation of their physical appearances as “living monstrosities” in the film’s final act. What was once an unconventional hangout comedy with a tragic mean streak reverts to the Universal Monsters model of Browning’s roots, reducing the “freaks” to silent, wordless monsters who stalk their erotic dancer prey from the shadows until it’s time to maim. In a mood-setting rainstorm, the circus performers crawl towards her with knives wedged in their teeth, all of their pre-established humanity now replaced with the supposedly grotesque image they strike as onscreen monsters. It’s arguable that without this conclusion Freaks would not technically qualify as a horror film, but by backsliding into the exploitative nature of horror as a genre, the movie effectively undoes a lot of its argument for empathy. Essentially, if the story Browning truly wanted to tell was that the performers were ordinary people who happened to have abnormal bodies, he should not have told that story through a genre that requires them to be visually shocking monsters.

As a visual achievement, a cultural time capsule, and a one of a kind novelty, Freaks has more than earned its place in the Important Cinema canon, if not only for inspiring the masterful The Elephant Man to accentuate its virtues & undo its faults. As a horror genre entertainment, however, it’s too self-defeating to qualify as a creative success. Browning asks his audience to think twice about treating his disabled circus performers like inhuman monstrosities and then marches them through genre conventions that require them to be exactly that. You could generously argue that societal cruelty & bigotry is what leads the film’s disabled characters to inhuman violence at the climax, but the film concluding on that violence for exploitative effect is too much of a self-contradiction to brush off entirely. Freaks‘s most effective mode of horror is in presenting a moral discomfort in the disconnect between its words & its actions, especially as its story gradually shifts genres while it reaches for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

-Brandon Ledet