Chained for Life (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Bound by Flesh (2012)

The major shortcoming of Tod Browning’s Freaks is that its commitment to the horror genre ultimately requires it to betray its empathy for its “circus freak” performers. The majority of Freaks plays like a hangout comedy that just happens to be set in a circus full of amputees, little people, microcephalics, etc., an intentional plea to the audience to find the common humanity in the “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs that work the film’s traveling sideshow. All of this work is undone at the climax when the titular “freaks” wordlessly creep up on & mutilate the physically abled erotic dancer who wrongs them, essentially playing the part of a Universal Monsters-style creature. Largely missing from the violence of this conclusion are the famed conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton largely manage to escape the more nastily exploitative aspects of Freaks, only enjoying the benefits of its more empathetic opening half, but they weren’t so lucky in real life. From birth, the sisters were exploited for entertainment on public display, often suffering the worst side of show business without ever fully reaping its benefits. The documentary Bound by Flesh attempts to give The Hilton Sisters their full due with posthumous praise for their successes in sideshows, vaudeville, and Freaks, but unfortunately also falls short in fully honoring the value of their entertainment industry legacy in the way they deserved.

Leslie Zemeckis, longtime romantic & creative partner with “Mr. CGI” himself, Robert Zemeckis, has been quietly toiling away as a documentarian in recent years. She’s been directing a series lowkey profiles on long-forgotten female entertainers like burlesque dancers, tiger trainers, and of course, in Bound by Flesh, The Hilton Sisters. Even where her still-developing sense of craft as a filmmaker fails the legacy of her subjects, Zemeckis’s intent in glorifying the conjoined twin vaudeville singers is an unquestionably admirable effort. Essentially sold at birth to a pub owner, the twins were raised from day one to serve as entertaining curiosities for strangers & drunks. As babies, they were displayed for barroom patrons to prod in wonder at the flesh that connected them; their earliest memories were of being curiously touched by strangers for amusement. Their career was built from there, without their consent, by shuffling them from traveling road shows to amusement parks to wax museums as life-long entertainers. By the time they appeared in musical vaudeville acts as young adults, they had no real talent or skill besides being able to sing, dance, and play the piano & saxophone. They had plenty of peak-years struggles with crooked managers, sham marriages and constant emotional abuse, but the toughest times in their life didn’t start until they drifted away from the spotlight entirely and were left unprepared to function as autonomous adults in the real world, much less pull themselves out of financial ruin. Zemeckis does an okay enough job balancing enthusiasm for their onstage accomplishments with honesty about the abusive exploitation that fueled them, but the story being told is consistently more fascinating than its method of delivery. Bound by Flesh is a mediocre film about an incredibly fascinating subject.

One thing Bound by Flesh benefits greatly from is how well the Hiltons’ lives were documented in the public eye. Combining photographs with reel footage of their two motion picture appearances, Freaks & the (very) loosely autobiographical Chained for Life, finds plenty of visual stimulation to accompany its talking head accounts of the history of their lives in carnivals & vaudeville. One of the better side effects of those interviews is in getting a general glimpse of what 1920s carnival sideshows & vaudeville-era exploitation entertainment was like, even including footage of ancient amusement park attractions & attendees. I also appreciated the way its general look is informed by vintage promotional material for sideshow attractions. Much less effective is the employment of former Zemeckis collaborators Lea Thompson & Nancy Allen to vocally dramatize accounts from The Hilton Sisters’ point of view, as filtered through an old-timey gramaphone effect. The movie also disappoints in its lack of interest in the behind the camera war stories from the twins’ two feature film appearances, what they’re currently best know for, and in its gradual decline in enthusiasm when discussing their most tragic, post-fame years (for obvious reasons), despite stretching out coverage of that period of their lives as much as better-documented eras. If you can excuse the lackluster execution in some of the technical details, however, Bound by Flesh is a welcome exalting of a pair of performers who spent their entire lives on the wrong end of exploitation entertainment. There might be a better movie to be made about their lives as empathy-worthy tragedy, like the way David Lynch lovingly profiled John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Either way, Zemeckis’s documentary is worthy enough for the way it draws attention to the often-dehumanized Hilton Sisters and the ugly industry that displayed them as oddities for profit and then dumped them into obscurity with no resources but the limited use of their vaudevillian talents.

-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