Freaks, creeps, and horror shows
It took way too long, but at least they didn't wait until Halloween: Warner Brothers has finally issued the brilliant horror film Freaks, directed by Tod Browning - who after this, the original Dracula, and The Unknown, should be much better known than he is. Browning, once a circus performer, cast the film with honest-to-goodness sideshow stars: Little people, a man with no limbs, and microcephalics (aka "pinheads") basically play themselves in this chilling revenge tale where, to borrow a tagline, the odd get even. Never have the words "we accept you" sounded less comforting.
(Speaking of Freaks, I finally got around to watching Stuck On You (Fox). It's no Something About Mary, but this sweet and silly story of pure-hearted conjoined twins is a return to form, getting back to the Farrellys' happy embrace of disfigurement and disability - excuse me, of other-abledness - without fumbling on the humor front.)
Freaks is joined by other chillers from Warners this month: Dead Ringer, starring Bette Davis as identical twins, and a double feature of Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned - which makes a nice triple-feature with The Bad Seed, another flick in which a white-haired child proves to be pure eeevil. Jumping ahead a few decades, the studio offers Joel Schumacher's goof-schlock classic, The Lost Boys. Somebody at Warner, I think, is having trouble with his kids.
Over at Universal, horror comes in a slightly less cuddly package. Steven Spielberg's brilliant debut Duel gives no face to its boogeyman; instead, long-distance motorist Dennis Weaver is taunted by an 18-wheeler that seems to have a will of its own. There's no mistaking the novice filmmaker's skill in this first feature: He plays with pace and camera angles like a prodigy, ratcheting up the tension until viewers are bouncing in their seats. You'll never see headlights in your rear-view mirror in quite the same way again.
Turning to real-world horror, two recent Columbia/TriStar releases look at the same story from different angles. There's Monster, in which Charlize Theron gives her loudly praised performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos; and there's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, a documentary starring that very woman. The doc, by English smart-ass Nick Broomfield, is a sequel to an earlier Broomfield feature that was skeptical of the convict's guilt. Now, on the eve of her execution, the filmmaker unearths more of the story and Wuornos herself claims that she is guilty after all. Unlike some of Broomfield's sensationalistic films, this one isn't fun - it's too serious to smirk at, presenting an outsider's view of America's attitude toward capital punishment.
If Monster's take on sex and death is a bit too grungy for you, there's always Sada (Home Vision), inspired by the true story of a geisha named Sada Abe. The same story that inspired the more poetic In the Realm of the Senses, it follows an unfortunate girl from her rape at 14 through prostitution and, finally, a love affair that ends in a gory crime. Gentlemen, hide your valued appendages.
Speaking of shorts and indie companies, a DIY outfit called Ban 1 Productions (www.ban1productions.com) just released their limited-edition debut, 42nd Street Forever Volume 1: Horror on 42nd Street. It's a collection of crazy old movie trailers, which is more entertaining than it sounds. Habitués of the Alamo Drafthouse know the joys to be found in trailers for trashy movies you might never consider enduring in their entirety. This set features everything from the aforementioned Freaks to Klaus Kinski thrillers, Kill Bill-inspiring revenge sagas, and self-explanatory gems like I Dismember Mama. Twenty-five dollars for 40 previews may sound steep, but only to those who don't appreciate the work involved in collecting these souvenirs, which by all rights should have been lost forever.
The biggest monster of the moment is the sadistic imagination of Lars Von Trier. Dogville (Lions Gate), his latest exercise in inventing sympathetic female protagonists only to drag them through unbelievable humiliation, goes the extra mile by making some provocative claims about America's moral fiber. Critics who were up in arms at the film's Cannes screening, though, should reconsider. Von Trier is a much more complicated character than some take him for, and while Dogville is not the equal of Breaking the Waves, it's also not simplistic America-bashing. But it is, like almost everything on this list, capable of making you laugh and cringe at the same time. •
John DeFore on DVD