The Criterion Voyages (Spine #1194): FREAKS / THE UNKNOWN / THE MYSTIC: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers -- Strong Collection Led by a Pre-Code Horror Cult Classic and a Rediscovered Hidden Gem
By Sean Boelman
Tod Browning’s most famous movie might be Dracula, but his most notorious is Freaks, which was so edgy that it changed the course of the filmmaker’s career. The new Criterion Collection set Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers brings together three of Browning’s works, all underappreciated in their time, but earning greater recognition today.
This collection comprises three films made by Browning set in the world of circus performers: The Mystic, The Unknown, and Freaks. Beyond their setting, the movies also share in common the plot thread of deceit, as each deals with a con artist outsider infiltrating the sanctity and acceptance of the group of circus performers. As you might expect, they get their karma.
Of course, the movie in this trilogy that most cinephiles will be familiar with is Freaks. The pre-code horror film was seen as extremely transgressive and envelope-pushing at the time, and even now stands out for its incredibly bleak ending. It’s unsettling, but not in the way that many movies following sideshow performers are. It refuses to otherize people for their differences, instead showing a message of acceptance.
In addition to the well-known talkie, the set contains two of Browning’s silent films set in the circus. The more well-known and accessible of these is the Lon Chaney vehicle The Unknown, in which Chaney poses as an armless man, only to find unexpected love as part of his deceit. If you thought Freaks was bleak, wait until you see this one. Chaney really carries The Unknown (no pun intended) with his performance, and there are some interesting visuals, but this feels like the most conventional of the bunch on a narrative level.
However, the real reason to pick up this collection is to get your hands on Browning's previously difficult-to-find 1925 silent thriller The Mystic. Following a phony mystic who teams up with a con-man for an elaborate ruse, this is not only the movie in the set that viewers are least likely to have seen, but arguably the best. Art deco designer Erté’s production design is fantastic, as is the lead performance by Aileen Pringle. The result is a film that is utterly enchanting — even more so than most silent horror pictures.
All three movies are presented in new 2K restorations, which are quite good. It’s always a treat to see such gorgeous restorations of pre-code films that were once only able to be seen in a low-quality format. This is especially true for The Mystic, which of the thematic trilogy, is the most visually sumptuous.
In terms of bonus features, this edition offers a wealth of them. There are audio commentaries for Freaks and The Unknown and an introduction to The Mystic by scholar David J. Skal, an interview with Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horror, an essay by Farran Smith Nehme, an archival documentary about Freaks, and a wealth of other goodies for cinephiles. The bonus features are very Freaks-heavy, but considering that has been the most accessible of the three for the longest time, it makes sense.
The Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers collection is a nice release in time for Spooky Season, but the real hero of this trilogy is the restoration of the elusive The Mystic. Buy it to get the Criterion version of the incendiary classic Freaks, but enjoy the hidden gem of The Mystic that comes along with it.
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers is available via The Criterion Collection on October 17.
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