Films To See Before You Die But Probably Haven’t: Part Seven

In Features by Misha Wallace - Social Media Editor

So many films, so little time. Fortunately here at FilmJuice we have a pool of talented writers, prepared to spend the vast part of their days hunkered down in darkened cinemas so that you don’t have to.  Earlier this year, we decided to put all this generated knowledge to the test and ask our regular writers to come up with a list of the Films You Should See … But Probably Haven’t. This week, Misha Wallace shares her choices with two very different films which both deliver the goods in spades …

Freaks  (Main Picture)
Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, frowned upon in its time, now stands firm in its rightful place as an original and shocking piece of cinema.  Little person, Hans (Harry Earles), a circus and sideshow leader, becomes captivated by the beauty of trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who teases and influences him in to spoiling her with expensive gifts.  After forming a secret, twisted alliance with circus strongman – the brutish Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleo discovers that Hans has inherited a fortune.  As Hans’s former love Frieda (Daisy Earles) looks on in dismay, Cleo uses his adoration of her against him, manipulating him in to marriage.  As Cleo increasingly shows herself in her true light, she does not realise that Hans’s circus troop have discovered her cruel intentions.

Moving from silent film, to directing Bela Lugosi as Dracula with tremendous success, Tod Browning took a great risk in making Freaks his next project.  The film was shunned, mainly for its controversial use of authentic circus performers rather than actors and at the time was detrimental to Browning’s career.  As with many films of its kind, it has only been through the passage of time that Freaks has finally been recognised as a great piece of cinema.  Sideshows were a large part of the 19th century as novelty acts but by the 1930s they were deemed to be undignified.  However, even now there remains a curiosity about physical disability, congenital deformity and unique diseases.  In this film, whilst the actors are engaging to look at, it is how they carry out everyday tasks that is intriguing:  Prince Randian: The Living Torso lighting a cigarette, the armless woman eating and drinking, the legless man getting around and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton managing their engagements to two different men.  Freaks was accused of exploiting those with congenital deformities, but before making this judgement you have to look at the narrative.  In this film, the ‘freaks’ themselves are charming, fun-loving people and protagonists you can really root for.  With the exception of clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and animal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams), it is those without physical disability who are monstrous with their prejudice, cruelty and greed.  In this sense the film laughs in the face of prejudice and victimisation, warning of the potential repercussions.

Freaks certainly has a shocking ending and it is this for which it is most famous, allowing it a deserving place within the horror genre and making it a film that audiences will not forget.  But, it is also humorous and very sweet with the warm and genuine background love story between Hans and Frieda and the strong sense of the importance of protecting your own.  The film has inspired many other filmmakers over the years, including David Lynch, Tim Burton and Sam Raimi.

It has been said of Freaks that ‘never again will such a story be filmed.’  Although there have been attempts, with Freaks being a film that was light years ahead of its time in terms of narrative and in a sense breaking new ground with the first exploration of the body horror genre, for the moment this prediction is certainly true.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is a man who likes to dip his toe in the waters of a range of different fantasy genres, becoming increasingly known for his unique style with the likes of the Hellboy movies, the not to be ignored Pan’s Labyrinth and the upcoming Pacific Rim, released this July.  However his original and intelligent take on the vampire (and in a lesser sense the zombie) genre, Cronos has sadly been undeservedly overlooked, fading in to the background of the 90s.

Cronos is the story of Jesús Gris (del Toro favourite Federico Luppi), an elderly Mexican gentleman living with haughty wife, Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) and near silent little granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath).  He owns a modest antique shop in the heart of town, teaching Aurora the trade and ambling through life.  One day a dubious character displays an overly keen interest in one of the statues.  Jesús’ suspicions are awoken and he discovers a peculiar artefact hidden in the base of the statue:  a golden, mechanical scarab beetle that seems to awaken upon contact with his hand.  The scarab latches itself on to him with sharp pincers and soon he becomes addicted to its strange power.  It becomes clear that this device can reverse the ageing process, making its victim immortal, but with this power comes the curse of a desperate thirst for human blood.  Meanwhile, ruthless millionaire De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), dying from a mysterious ailment, sets meathead nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman) on the trail of Jesús and the mysterious scarab and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Cronos is a film that has so much to say and does so through an intelligent use of symbolism.  It switches incongruously between Spanish and English, commenting on familial relationships, the power of addiction and the importance of maintaining a sense of identity.  Jesús becomes addicted to the painful clutches of the scarab; he begins to look and feel younger, earning him back the attention of his estranged wife.  He feels pain, but when injured, he immediately heals.  But with this comes nightly sweats, uncontrollable itching from the bites and a powerful craving:  a desperate desire to quench a relentless thirst with the bloody satisfaction of raw meat and even the remnants of a stranger’s nose bleed from a cold toilet floor.  Jesús is doomed as a result of his addiction, but desperately tries to hold on to the soul of the good, ordinary man he was before as he asks of the scarab ‘Be careful with my soul, I beg you.’

All performances in Cronos are outstanding with the comical, but maniacal Perlman and the fiendish Brook, but the film truly belongs to Luppi and Shanath as they convey a unique and heart-warming bond between a little girl and her grandfather.  Luppi evokes so much empathy as Jesús, despite the fact he becomes the most iconic of deadly creatures.  Del Toro truly knows how to write children and the innocent and silent little Aurora is the antidote to Jesus’ predicament, overlooking the monster and seeing only her beloved grandfather.  The parent/child roles are reversed as Aurora provides for Jesús the welcoming warmth of a clean towel from the rain and the dark seclusion of a toy box to protect him from sunlight.  Understanding one another completely, she helps keep the monster at bay and his soul alive.

Cronos may not have the most up to date make-up effects but they are still effective and the imagery of the film is beautiful, with the creature Jesús becomes described as having ‘strange skin:  the colour of marble and moonlight.’  A curious mixture of typical del Toro fantasy and sci-fi comes with the vampire myth and the clockwork mechanism of the ‘insect’ trapped inside the cronos device like a ‘living filter.’  Overall, fresh, intriguing and heart wrenching, Cronos has a little bit of everything.