Staff A-Z of Films… F is F-f-for (Pt. 3):


freaks-posterF for Freaks (1932)

Based on the short story ‘Spurs’ by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins, Browning’s ‘Freaks’ is set at a sideshow and is a story of unrequited love, honour, discrimination, and revenge. Hans (Harry Earles – The Wizard of Oz), a midget, recently rich through inheritance, is seduced by the Circus’ gold-digging trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova – The Man Who Laughs). With the help of the show’s strong man, Hercules (Henry victor), Cleopatra plots to marry and kill Hans for his fortune, underestimating the strength of the ‘code of the freaks’ and their familial bond.

“We accept you, one of us! Gooble Gobble!”

The plot may sound quite familiar, it is an age-old, love-triangle tale. However, it is the setting and supporting cast that makes “Freaks” so distinguished. Unlike many of today’s films in which we have 5-6 foot tall actors portraying 3-4 foot tall characters, ‘Freaks’ the pre-CGI horror film had its titular heroes played by bona fide stars of the American sideshow and circus industries.

tumblr_l7vzslZ4Pq1qbbjxvo1_500In 1896 a 16-year-old Tod Browning ran away from his well off family in Kentucky, to pursue one of his life long fascinations, the circus. He travelled for many years with various sideshows and carnivals featuring as a Talker for ‘The Wild Man of Borneo’, as a clown for the Ringling Brothers Circus and performed as ‘The Living Corpse’ in a live burial act. In Vaudeville theatre he worked as clown, actor, dancer and magician, and in New York City he was the director of a variety theatre where he met fellow Louisvillian W. D. Griffith. Browning’s directorial carrier evolved into silent cinema throughout which he worked frequently with horror legend, Lon Chaney. In 1929 he directed his first talkie The Thirteenth Chair with Bela Legosi, a partnership that only two years later would lead to the immortal Dracula.

Browning’s successful yet, oftentimes tumultuous career in the horror genre was brought to a rapid halt after the release of Freaks, only making four more pictures before leaving the director’s chair altogether. Now considered a milestone in cinema, this film is also one of history’s most controversial features. From the first test screenings, in which one lady claimed it to have caused her miscarriage through shock, until today, this pre-code horror has continued to maintain its dangerous reputation. Soon after production, Freaks was reduced from its 90 minute running time to just 64 minutes (the cut footage is now considered to be lost), a happier ending was clumsily added as ordered by MGM studios and it wasn’t until 1963 that the UK finally lifted it’s 30 year ban on the film.

tumblr_m69fvbVGMX1qbbjxvo1_500In general the film presents the ‘freaks’ as honourable kindly characters, whilst the ‘normals’ come across as shameless and a-moral. However, no individual is presented so simply. For example, as Hans’ infatuation for Cleopatra increases, his consideration for his fiancée Frida is almost entirely neglected.  Meanwhile, of the two good ‘normals’ in the film, Phroso and Venus, who are kind to the ‘freaks’, Phroso, has his morally grey areas with regards to his attitude to women: “You dames is all alike. Yer sharp-shootin’, yer cheap, and how you squeal when you get what’s coming to ya”.
After the initially shock-inducing introduction to some of the ‘freaks’, where those who call them “monsters” are invited to see them as the “children” they are, the film plays out as more of a drama than a horror film. Browning elegantly turns from the exploitative and sensationalist nature of the side-show industry, to look at the every day mundanities of the ‘Freaks’ Lives. Once we have become accustomed to their way of life, and have learnt to distinguish the performers by their personalities and not just their abnormalities, Browning reverts to utilising sensationalism once again. The infamous scene in the woods helps establish Freaks as one of the greatest horror films of its time. This visually powerful sequence, in which a host of the ‘freaks’ crawl to attack, is enhanced by the erratic dance of storm-induced light and shadows, with beautiful yet hauntingly monstrous results.

002As controversial as it has been over the years, Freaks is a fascinating study of the sideshow world, one all too seldom looked at with such honourable intentions as Browning clearly held. Freaks may not be considered a scary horror film by today’s high-definition, gore-fest standards but it is horrifying in the true sense of the word, and yet also tender, funny, and quite unforgettable.

Interesting facts:
After Freaks was withdrawn and shelved by MGM, the notorious American director and producer of exploitation films, Dwain Ester, bought the rights at low-cost and travelled the country showing it under titles “Forbidden Love” and “Nature’s Mistakes”.

***with spoiler***

Olga Baclanova’s bird suit worn near the end of the film was originally designed by Lon Chaney, but he unfortunately died before being able to put it to use. It was kept in an MGM store cupboard for years before Browning brought it out.



ku-xlargeF is for A Field in England (2013)

A psychedelic, black and white, British civil war movie – what more do you want?
Ben Wheatley has put his stamp on the gangster film (Down Terrace), hit man movie (Kill List), and caravan comedy killer flick (Sightseers). Here set out to revive the much missed midnight movie.
With visuals that mix Jodorowsky with Sergio Leone and a script by Amy Jump that feels completely authentic but also fresh and alive, Wheatley takes us down a psychological rabbit hole into a world of alchemy and spiritual hoodoo. The trademark intensity of Reece Shearsmith will sear into the mind, Michael Smiley intimidates with venomous vigour and you’ll find yourself sucked into a world out of kilter.
a-field-in-england-2013-001-man-in-wheat-field_1000x750Does it all make sense? I’m not sure, but it’s trip you won’t forget in a hurry.


Halloween films for children, little or big (Pt.2)

by Lally Pollen


Coraline (2009) PG
Beautifully animated stop motion feature based on the book by Neil Gaiman, about a young girl thrown into an idealized replica of her world, which is more sinister than at first it seems.



Frankenweenie (2012) PG
Animated feature film based on the short by director Tim Burton.  A young boy, victor, conducts experiments to bring his dog back to life. As the monster dog wreaks havoc in the town the boy must convince them of the loyalty and good nature of his best friend.



The Black Cauldron (1985) U certificate
One of Disney’s lesser known animations, Black Cauldron was the first to be released that was not a musical and was with held from video release due to its dark content. Its tells the story of a young boy and his companions who go on a quest to get hold of a powerful object before the evil Horned King gets his mitts on it.




Labyrinth (1986) U certificate + Dark Crystal (1982) PG
Written and directed by Jim Henson, the characters of both these films were based on the designs by Brian Froud. Labyrinth stars David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Sarah (Connelly) must rescue her baby brother from The goblin kings, by completing his Labyrinth with in 13 hours. Dark Crystal is an animation using puppets. Jen a young orphan raised by peaceful wizards must embark on a quest to find the missing piece of the dark crystal to restore the balance of the universe.



Paranorman (2012) PG
An animated comedy adventure from first time director Chris Butler. Norman has the ability to see and talk to the dead, yet most people do not believe his ability is real. The town of Blithe Hollow (a nod to Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow) is under threat from a curse cast by a witch condemned centuries ago. Norman is the only one who can save them.



Dracula (1931) PG
Although black and white films may not interest some children, Bela Legosi gives one of the most iconic performances of the count in this beautifully creepy version of the classic novel.






spiral_staircase_ver2A surprisingly frightening noir, starring George Brent and Dorothy McGuire, The Spiral Staircase leads you on a twisting and turning journey of murder and suspicion. Just when you think you’re on comfortable and familiar ground and, indeed, are about to write it off after a few minutes as being predictable and hammy, you quickly realise the film has you turned around and that in fact you’re not where you thought you were at all.

spiral-staircase-muteA killer with a weakness for those suffering from afflictions begins to strike in a small town. Helen, played by Dorothy McGuire hasn’t spoken since she was a child – surely, as a mute, she too will become a victim? The killer sees her and is overcome with an urge to destroy her. But who is he? Or she?

spiralstaircase-3Nicholas Musuraca’s fantastic, crisp, noir cinematography does much to heighten the sense of an impending threat, veiling the mansion – in which most of the action takes place – in heavy, gothic shadows and masking the killer’s face, revealing all but an eye.

In fact, the motif of the close-up eye is used throughout the film, but, cleverly, director Robert Siodmak uses close-ups from different actors to represent the killer’s own eye, thereby increasing the difficulty the audience has in identifying the culprit.

20120810-121310At first you suspect the elderly doctor, then the young doctor. Or could it be Helen’s employer, the seemingly bed-ridden Mrs. Warren, played to excellent effect by Ethel Barrymore…?

spiral-staircase-gunDeeper and deeper we are led, turning around and around, in and out of rooms, up and down stairs, bounced from one character to another. Alfred Hitchcock meets Agatha Christie? Perhaps. But one thing is for certain – you’ll be checking and double checking all your windows are locked…


posted by Dixie Turner

Halloween films for children, little or big (Pt.1)

By Lally Pollen

monster-houseMonster House (2006) PG
Animated horror-comedy about three teens exploring the haunted house across the street, only to discover the house itself is a living, breathing monster.


l_121164_4116ace5Corpse Bride (2005) PG
Stop-motion animation from director Tim Burton, featuring voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Gough. A young groom inadvertently marries a dead woman whist practicing his wedding vows.  Despite
the sinister tone of the plot and title, Corpse Bride blends musical numbers, comedy and charm with a gothic aesthetic.


the-nightmare-before-christmas-movie-poster-3607Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) PG
Based on a poem by Tim Burton, this stop-motion musical follows Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween, on his quest to understand the nature of Christmas. Music composed by, and featuring the voice of, Danny Elfman.



addams_family_values_ver1Addams Family (1991)  PG + Addams Family Values (1993) PG
The first directorial feature from Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black), The Addams Family is based on the characters created by Charles Addams and stars Raul Julia and Angelica Huston. Charming gothic family comedies.


600full-the-witches-posterThe Witches (1990) PG
Based on the book by Roald Dahl, The Witches is part adventure, part fantasy horror, about a little boy who after stumbling upon a witch convention and being turned in a mouse, must try to stop their sinister plans. Angelica Huston plays the head witch, who may be a little scary for very young children.


Young-Frankenstein-PosterYoung Frankenstein (1974) PG
A Mel Brooks comedy starring Gene Wilder about the grandson of the famous scientist inheriting the castle and continuing Dr Frankenstein’s experiments, after years of trying to live down the family reputation. A few of the jokes and innuendos may well go over the heads of the very young.


hocus-pocus-movie-poster-1619Hocus Pocus (1993) PG
Goofy and flamboyant Disney comedy celebrating all things Halloween.  This comedy-adventure stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and a very young Thora Birch. Three sister witches are resurrected 300 years after their initial demise in Salem, Massachusetts. It is up to two teenagers, a little girl and an immortal cat to stop them once and for all!




Video City A-Z of Film – Staff Picks: A is for… (Pt.2)


A is for Arachnophobia (1990) – Directed by Frank Marshall

Being somewhat of an arachnophobe myself, this is one of the last films I ever thought I would recommend. In fact it may well be watching Frank Marshall’s directorial debut as a child that gave me my fear of spiders in the first place. How I was convinced, therefore, not only to sit through 103 minutes of this carnival of hairy spinners all over again, but also on a screen that made even the smallest members of the cast large enough to dwarf Shelob, I still don’t know. However, I was and I did and amazingly I had a great time doing so. Other than feeding the cat-killing curiosity that makes us seek-out and test our fear-tolerance threshold (something horror fans tend to live of off) this film is surprisingly funny and has, dare I say it, a touch of the feel-good. Only a touch mind you.

Starring Jeff Daniels as the not-so ‘Dumb and Dumber’ Doctor and with too few but nonetheless great scenes of the stupendous John Goodman (accompanied by his very own soundtrack), ‘Arachnophobia’ will most likely have you beating boots and checking bedroom room corners before you can fall asleep. But it’s worth it.

I leave you with a couple of tips for making it through this film with your household, your friends and yourself still in one piece:

1) Ensure all glass, crockery and liquids are placed at a minimum of 1.5 metres distance. If you are even remotely disgruntled by eight-legged creepies or their unsettling ability to jump, this film will have you too scared to leap behind the sofa for fear of what you might land on. Instead it is that still-steaming cup of tea you were hoping would provide succour enough to get you through the first half, that you will find yourself landing on or, if in hand at the time, hurling at the screen.

2) Cut and file finger nails. Intense hand squeezing or limb flailing can be a common side effect during the film’s climbing waves of dread, and when that wave hits its peak, flesh may get slashed, eyeballs whipped and lesser limbs potentially severed.

3) Avoid snacks in a bag. Get 15 mins into the film and it’s unlikely you’ll be willing to reach for those comforting snacks if they rest at the bottom of a dark packet.

4) Do not watch alone. Firstly because sharing the creepy-crawly fear is twice as fun when shared, and secondly once you’ve forgiven each other for excessive pranking you’ll need a shoe/corner checker before hitting the sack.