MY FAVOURITE HORROR MOVIE: FABIEN DELAGE
Fabien Delage is an award winning graphic designer, photographer and film-maker.He first broke onto the scene with his horror travelogue series Dead Crossroads and recently had his documentary Fury of the Demon play at London Frightfest. His latest feature (currently in production) is Cold Ground - a film described at 'The Descent meets The Blair Witch Project'. What's not to like?! Here, he tells us about his favourite horror movie, the infamous 'Freaks' (1932)
I was 8 when I saw Freaks for the first time. I used to play in the living room while my Dad was working or watching movies. Back then, I watched adventure and monster movies. We had already been through the whole VHS collection of Universal’s classic monster movies and the Godzilla series. My Dad probably thought another black and white movie wouldn’t scare me and he was right. As I watched Freaks, I didn’t feel afraid at all and it was the first Tod Browning movie I saw. This movie was the epitome of everything I liked about cinema back then, like a dark tale that lingers forever in your head as a kid. I loved the 1930s feel, the carnival settings, the bewitching soundtrack and most of all those fascinating uncanny characters. As an 8-year-old, I didn’t even try to find out whether it was special effects or real people; I would just go with the flow and enjoy this dark magical story. The revenge of the freaks at the end didn’t strike me as particularly horrible. In my eyes, those characters had stepped out of a macabre yet beautifully aesthetic fable. And that’s when black and white totally made sense to me. Through the years, this movie has remained by my side and everything I’ve done has brought me back to it one way or another. Every time I watch it I discover a new interpretation, new details...
The topics this movie addresses are very important to me for the concept of difference is at the heart of my work. Constantly and forcefully dehumanized, the characters had no rights whatsoever. In the 1930s, there were no disability rights laws; teratology was unknown, ignorance and fear of deformity were at their worst. It was then completely impossible for those outcasts to live a human life. Often shown off at night under dim and shady lights so the imagination of the beholder would run wild, freaks were always associated with darkness.
Yet the most interesting thing is what happened after the film came out. Browning wanted to capture the true nature of their lives, overcome clichés and still retain a sense of fear and that’s what ruined his career. The audience would leave theaters thinking this movie was exploitative, immoral and indecent. No one was ready for such a movie in 1932. Censorship shortened it by two thirds so it ended up being 30-minute long instead of 90 and the original copy was destroyed. Some crucial and deeply meaningful scenes are now lost forever. Let’s take the example of Hercules’s punishment. In the version that resurfaced in 1963, Hercules disappears after being stabbed by one of the Rollo brothers. It leaves us thinking that he might be dead and that the fact he remains unseen is a storyline twist created to make the movie more disturbing. But as a matter of fact, "freaks" unite to punish the "strongman" for stealing Cleopatra from Hans and robbing him of his manhood: they emasculate Hercules, therefore turning things around. Thanks to - or rather because of - this cut, the ban was lifted and the movie came out again in Paris in 1966 whereas the rights had been long sold by MGM to an unknown production company. It had remained hidden for over 30 years.
"This movie has remained by my side and everything I've done has brought me back to it one way or another."
Yet, Browning used a trick for the audience to relate to his work: he set the action in a foreign country, namely France, a technique used by Montesquieu in Persian Letters. The effort scriptwriter Willis Goldberg put into reminding people that Freaks wasn’t a reflection of the USA by creating characters with foreign names and accents was in vain. Too short to be a feature film and too long to be a short, the movie was banned by MGM for it was too hard to interest an audience in something that didn’t belong in any genre. And that’s what I love about this movie, it’s a cursed piece and however bordeline mythical, it will never fit in. Audiences condemned Tod Browning for being cruel and disrespectful. People didn’t get that this work might have helped them get in touch with their dark side. The reversal of the Manichean morality, on which depended classical aesthetics, enabled the director to show the world that the monster is in the eye of the beholder.
Browning’s offspring have remained by my side to this day. Back in high school, I played in a metal fusion band inspired by Mr Bungle. It was called Bleeding Freaks and all of my lyrics dealt with freak shows and deformed and rejected creatures that would unite and seek revenge… It was definitely my thing. We made two albums and then I turned to film making. My first feature film, called Fury of the Demon, is sort of an homage to Browning’s work, it’s a investigation about a cursed and lost movie. I even mention Miracles for Sale in it. There will always be a little bit of Freaks in everything I do. I only saw it about 30 times yet I collect a lot of stuff related to this movie and as any fan would, I’m eagerly waiting for the blu-ray edition to come out with a remastered version. It would be the most magical gift and I would never grow tired of it.