May 13, 2004
Super Freaks and Geek Love: Wherein Josh Jabcuga discusses the announcement of the impending arrival of Tod Browning’s FREAKS to DVD, as well as the recently released-to-DVD David Lynch midnight movie mindbender ERASERHEAD.
There was a time when the list of films not yet available on DVD that I yearned for far outweighed the list of films available on the format. So it was with great joy that I read the recent announcement that TOD BROWNING’s freakishly fun and authentically freak-filled film FREAKS (1932) is being released on DVD in late summer. For movie geeks and fans of sideshow freaks, this is fantastic news, comparable to finding the cinematic equivalent of forbidden fruit at one’s fingertips. Few films feel like Browning’s FREAKS, for sure.
FREAKS is a veritable train wreck of both human genetics and human emotions. Deformities and abnormalities of all shapes and sizes are documented by the film. While the film has a fictional plot, the main draw is that most of the actors were genuine sideshow performers. The film very much gives you that fly-on-the-wall feeling while watching it. In A BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, DAVID THOMSON writes: “A commercial flop, and widely banned, FREAKS now seems less a horror picture than an indictment of the cult of attractiveness.”
According to the superb book THE MONSTER SHOW by DAVID J. SKAL, TOD BROWNING began his career in showbiz working carnivals as “The Hypnotic Living Corpse,” where he was routinely buried alive. His life was a storied one, as BROWNING even crossed paths with BELA LUGOSI, having directed the quintessential Count in DRACULA for Universal (1931). SKAL actually wrote an entire book devoted to TOD BROWNING. Sadly, SKAL’s BROWNING book, titled DARK CARNIVAL, is no longer in print. One can only hope that with the re-release of FREAKS the book will see the light of day once again. BROWNING’s achievements deserve to be more than buried treasure.
Another film that was only recently released to DVD and one that feels like a distant third-cousin (the kind of cousins that marry one another) to BROWNING’s FREAKS is DAVID LYNCH’s maddeningly bizarre ERASERHEAD (1977). Some viewers may label ERASERHEAD as horror, as they do FREAKS. However, like FREAKS, ERASERHEAD isn’t so much horror as it is just plain odd. It’s horror in the same way that DONNIE DARKO belongs to the genre: only in passing, although it’s easy to feel frightened at times while viewing the films. ERASERHEAD is one of only a small handful of instances when a critic could describe the film as creating its own genre and actually be one hundred percent accurate, and not simply be guilty of spouting off wannabe Ebert & Ropert “critic clichés.”
ERASERHEAD has no discernible plot. That’s not to say the film is without plot, it’s simply just saying that upon their first, and even tenth viewing, viewers may feel clueless regarding the plot. While the film may reward repeated viewings, it remains, to me at least, very much like drinking several glasses of wine in one sitting. With each viewing, I get more intoxicated with the film, but threads of plot have also become more incoherent and out of reach for me. (Fuzzy, to say the least.) I have heard many viewers come to the conclusion that the film, with its images of a deformed and sickly alien baby, a disfigured lady who dances only after worms are dropped on her head, and tiny, bleeding rotisserie chickens, among other such oddities, is an anti-abortion metaphor. That would be an interesting and wise guess, one that I cannot argue with. I, too, have held that notion at times. Unfortunately, I’m just not entirely certain how the pieces all fit together.
I worked at a video store when I was younger (several, to be exact). The best video store that I worked for, and rented from, was a Buffalo-based chain called Video Factory. It was located, literally, and sadly, within spitting distance of a Blockbuster Video. Video Factory wasn’t some cookie-cutter franchise that bowed to the greedy corporate gods like Blockbuster does. Video Factory wasn’t hell-bent on buying out every Mom and Pop video store or running them out of town, spreading nationally like some evil virus such as Blockbuster. At Video Factory, you weren’t just a number. You weren’t just your Rewards Membership card there. You were a film lover, and they had a ton of uncensored films for you to love.
It was at Video Factory that I came to know and love ERASERHEAD. Yes, they actually had a copy of it to rent. They even had a guarantee that if you didn’t like it, you could choose another film, on the house. That’s one film, though, that I bet they may have regretted that deal on. If you’ve never seen ERASERHEAD, know that it screws with your head. Know that it’s a beautifully lit, skillfully shot, and all around masterfully crafted piece of LYNCHian art.
One day when I went to work at Video Factory, I saw the manager pulling all the NC-17 films and “mature” type films from the shelves (Not porn per se, but just extra violent action flicks and gory horror movies). He put a price label on BAD LIEUTENANT for less than five bucks. “What are you doing? That’s HARVEY KEITEL!” I yelled, as if he were insulting my father. He proceeded to inform me that Video Factory had been bought out by Blockbuster, and that the chain did not carry nor did it want NC-17 films or questionable material for rental at its stores. About a week later, I quit, not before dubbing myself a copy of ERASERHEAD and rescuing BAD LIEUTENANT from the bad cops of Blockbuster.
The homemade bootlegged copy that I possessed and cherished of ERASERHEAD wasn’t the best, but it was the best I had. The film was no longer available for purchase on video, and its arrival on DVD was nothing more than wishful thinking.
ERASERHEAD returns home, with a spiffy cleaned-up transfer, available exclusively at www.DavidLynch.com. You can throw out your bootlegged videos or the unauthorized burned DVDs you found on Ebay. This is the real thing, and it’s been worth the wait. While the disc’s supplements are slim, they are still valuable and distinctly DAVID LYNCH. There’s a lengthy conversation with the director where he recalls the process of making ERASERHEAD. At times dry, but mostly engaging, it’s a welcome look from the madman himself at the film’s production. (Ironically, DAVID LYNCH’s next film would be THE ELEPHANT MAN starring ANTHONY HOPKINS.)
Fortunately, on the DVD bonus material, DAVID LYNCH does not provide any insight whatsoever into the themes of his baby, ERASERHEAD. That would end all the debate and ultimately erase a large portion of the film’s appeal. And that might be asking for too much. Besides, who needs the answers when they possess such mesmerizing questions?
When not surfing www.shockedandamazed.com, Josh Jabcuga can be found writing Squib Central, published every Thursday, exclusively at www.moviepoopshoot.com.
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