The Unknown + Freaks

1927 / 1932, Tod Browning, USA

(Double Feature)

Rating: R16 Runtime: 140 minutes including a short intermission

Although Tod Browning is best known for 1931’s Dracula, it may actually be one of the less interesting films in a prolific career that straddled the silent and sound eras. Wellington Film Society is screening a film from each of those eras back-to-back. Each of these draw from his early career in circuses and sideshows (including as a carnival barker, contortionist and clown).

The Unknown is a silent horror about the relationship between knife-thrower Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) and his performance partner Nanon (a very young Joan Crawford). An early sound film, Freaks explores similar themes, primarily through the interactions between trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and the ‘freaks’ of the carnival sideshow, especially little person Hans (Harry Earles). Each film transcends its seemingly exploitative premise to tell a story of discrimination, disability and bodily-mutilation.

Neither The Unknown nor Freaks received much love in their time and their controversial subject matter meant both have been subject to various attempts at hard and soft censorship in the subsequent decades. Luckily, audiences have become more open to films in which the real monsters are ‘normal’ people (Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton have made their respective careers out of this theme) and Tod Browning’s masterpieces are getting the belated praise they deserve.

The Unknown

Rating: PG Runtime: 68 minutes

Director: Tod Browning
Production: MGM
Screenplay: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editors: Harry Reynolds, Errol Taggart
Lon Chaney (Alonzo)
Norman Kerry (Malabar)
Joan Crawford (Nanon)
Nick De Ruiz (Zanzi)
John George (Cojo)
Frank Lanning (Costra)

“The most celebrated and exquisitely perverse of the many collaborations between Tod Browning and his legendary leading man Lon Chaney, The Unknown features a wrenchingly physical performance from “the Man of a Thousand Faces” as the armless Spanish knife thrower Alonzo (he flings daggers with his feet) whose dastardly infatuation with his beautiful assistant (Joan Crawford)—a woman, it just so happens, who cannot bear to be touched by the hands of any man—drives him to unspeakable extremes. Sadomasochistic obsession, deception, murder, disfigurement, and a spectacular Grand Guignol climax—Browning wrings every last frisson from the lurid premise.” —Criterion


Rating: R16 Runtime: 64 minutes

Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Willis Goldbeck,
  Leon Gordon, from the
  novel Spurs by Tod Robbins
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editor: Basil Wrangell
Wallace Ford (Phroso)
Leila Hyams (Venus)
Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra)
Roscoe Ates (Roscoe)
Henry Victor (Hercules)
Harry Earles (Hans)
Daisy Earles (Frieda)

The most transgressive film produced by a major American studio in the 1930s, Tod Browning’s crowning achievement has haunted the margins of cinema for nearly one hundred years. An unforgettable cast of real-life sideshow performers portray the entertainers in a traveling circus who, shunned by mainstream society, live according to their own code—one of radical acceptance for the fellow oppressed and, as the show’s beautiful but cruel trapeze artist learns, of terrifying retribution for those who cross them. Received with revulsion by viewers upon its initial release, Freaks permanently damaged Browning’s career but can now be seen for what it is: an audacious cry for understanding and a singular experience of nightmarish, almost avant-garde power.


Jun 10 2024


6:15 pm - 8:40 pm