Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers
The world is a carnival of criminality, corruption, and psychosexual strangeness in the twisted pre-Code shockers of Tod Browning. Early Hollywood’s edgiest auteur, Browning drew on his experiences as a circus performer to create subversive pulp entertainments set amid the world of traveling sideshows, which, with their air of the exotic and the disreputable, provided a pungent backdrop for his sordid tales of outcasts, cons, villains, and vagabonds. Bringing together two of his defining works (The Unknown and Freaks) and a long-unavailable rarity (The Mystic), this cabinet of pre-Code curiosities reveals a master of the morbid whose ability to unsettle is matched only by his daring compassion for society’s most downtrodden.
The Criterion Collection combines three “Sideshow Shockers” from Tod Browning in one two-disc set, his classic Freaks, alongside two early silents, The Unknown and The Mystic. All three films have received brand-new restorations, with Freaks presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and the two silents in 1.33:1. Freaks is included on the first dual-layer disc while the other two are lumped together on the second dual-layer disc.
Resigned to the fact that all three restorations and end presentations would be heavily reliant on the conditions of the source materials (given everything was balanced with the end encode and the restoration itself), I kept expectations at bay, with the hope that at least in the case of Freaks, its new high-def presentation would offer a notable enough improvement over Warner’s 2004 DVD if not much else. Shockingly, this new 2K restoration delivers a marked improvement over that previous DVD, far more than I thought was possible. The original negatives (including around 25 minutes worth of material excised from the film before its release) are long gone, so all that has been available up to this point have been later-generation elements, which I thought this restoration would be working with. Yet according to the notes for the restoration, an initial 5K scan was taken from a 35mm duplicate nitrate negative, with a safety print filling in where necessary.
The film is still not razor-sharp, which isn't a complete shock, but there is an apparent increase in fine-object detail, which I attribute to the nitrate film elements' improved contrast and wider grayscale. Warner’s DVD is pretty good for what it had to work with, but the high contrast presentation could lead to heavy blacks and limited range in the grays. This led to a darker image, which could be pretty brutal for the film’s darker sequences, like the climax. The broader range afforded here opens things up, allowing for more detail in the shadows and a finale that is easier to see. Even the highlights in the raindrops look better.
I was also surprised to see how much the image has been cleaned up. There are still a few minor marks, and the film’s ending looks dupey and blown out (it’s a scene that had been added back in previously and is sourced from the safety print, I believe). Still, the restoration work has been extensive otherwise, even stabilizing the image. Unexpectedly, when it comes to print damage, this presentation may be cleaner than the one for Criterion’s other recent release, The Others, a film from 2001. Mix that solid restoration with a nice-looking encode (which does a fine job rendering the unsurprisingly heavy grain), and you have the cleanest presentation yet for the film by a significant margin. It’s a delightful surprise.
The two other presentations don’t look as good, but they’re also impressive in their own right, especially when one considers they’re both approaching their centennials. The Unknown (from a 2K restoration created from the two only surviving nitrate prints) may look the best of the two silents if only because The Mystic (from a 2K restoration taken from a 35mm safety fine-grain) is a bit more contrasty. Blacks look heavy, and grayscale is limited, leading to weaker overall details.
Damage, unsurprisingly, can be prominent, with both films delivering plenty of scratches and debris. It’s still nowhere near as bad as I would have expected, though. At the very least, it helps that the scans for both films are fantastic, having captured an extraordinary level of detail, and the images are very sharp for what they are.
Both encodes are also solid, though some minor combing effects pop up here and there. This has to do with the frame rates of the films, which are not the standard 24fps (I’m assuming they’re somewhere between 16 and 18), so to account for this, both films are presented in 1080i/60hz (Freaks, it should be mentioned, has a progressive 1080p/24hz presentation), merging frames here and there as needed. They’ve done an excellent job hiding it, though, and only a handful of sequences featuring quick movements are where interlacing artifacts are evident.
Despite the source materials' limitations, all three presentations look exceptional, far exceeding what I could have hoped for.
Freaks (1932): 8/10 The Mystic (1925): 7/10 The Unknown (1927): 7/10
The two silent films are accompanied by newly recorded scores, one by Philip Carli for The Unknown and one by frequent David Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley for The Mystic. Both are presented in lossless PCM stereo.
The score for The Unknown is a standard one, about what most would expect, but it suits the film and spreads everything out nicely between the front speakers. The score for The Mystic is a far more ambitious one, using a variety of instruments while also incorporating several sound effects timed to moments within the film. This also leads to its mix being more creative, with noticeable splits between the front speakers. Both tracks sound crisp and clean, though this shouldn’t be too big a surprise since they’re newly recorded.
Freaks’ soundtrack shows its age but is still pretty good, all things considered. Dialogue is easy to hear, and there is no heavy damage, but the range is limited, with audio still slightly muffled. It’s possible that the audio may have been filtered a bit, but not overly so.
Freaks (1932): 6/10 The Mystic (1925): 8/10 The Unknown (1927): 8/10
Criterion packs on a decent amount of material, though they put most of the focus on Freaks. At the very least, they have enlisted David J. Skal to record a new audio commentary for The Unknown alongside a new commentary for Freaks, despite Skal having already recorded one in 2004 for Warner's DVD. Doing a quick comparison between his new track and the 2004 one, it sounds like he’s covering the same material for the most part, though he takes the opportunity with his new track to update details. The most significant update comes in Skal’s bringing up Guillermo del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley, which pays homage to Freaks and Browning’s work in numerous ways. Del Toro’s film also comes up occasionally throughout his commentary for The Unknown, with Skal utilizing these moments to discuss Browning’s carnival and sideshow experiences. He even brings up sideshow acts, including “the geek.” Unsurprisingly, he also talks about P.T. Barnum.
Del Toro’s remake is only a tiny part of both tracks, of course, and the bulk of his material covers each film and their respective productions in staggering detail. He covers Freaks’ history, starting with the original story it’s based on (Tod Robbins’ short “Spurs”) before moving on to its production, unique casting, and troubles it faced just before its release, where test-audience reactions led to the film being cut heavily. Skal brings up these cut scenes, usually around where they would have appeared, and also talks about the film’s many endings, none of which sound to have been what Browning truly wanted.
Lon Chaney also comes up as he was initially tied to the project (one version of it, anyway) but sadly passed before work began. Skal expands further on this and Chaney’s background in the track for The Unknown. Skal also takes the opportunity early on to talk about the version of the film presented on this release, which incorporates newly discovered footage, bringing it closer to its original runtime. He comments on what footage has been added and shares his thoughts on why he feels it helps the film’s narrative.
Though it’s clear that Skal is reading from a prepared script, the two tracks still move at a good clip thanks to the amount of material he’s loaded into both, ensuring that dead space is never an issue.
To accompany his Freaks track, Skal also provides an audio-only feature of him reading Tod Robbins’ “Spurs,” which starts with him talking about the author’s background. The story differs from the finished film, though the general plot is similar. I was, however, amused at how the title is ultimately incorporated into the story close to its end. Playing over a title card, the feature runs for 48 minutes.
Criterion then ports over the video features from the Warner DVD, including the alternate opening prologue, created for the film’s re-release. It's accompanied by a commentary from Skal, who explains why it was made. The 6-minute featurette on the film’s alternate endings is also here, with Skal describing how the original end played out. I’ve always found it surprisingly nasty for a movie from the era, and it’s a shame the footage no longer exists. The film also had a few other endings, one lopping off the epilogue and another shortening it down, with both versions shown here. And then finally, Criterion includes the making-of documentary Tod Browning’s “Freaks”: The Sideshow Cinema, featuring interviews with Skal, Todd Robbins, Johnny Meah, actor Mark Povinelli, and performer Jennifer Miller. Though Skal does a decent job covering the film’s production in his track, this documentary digs in deeper, even taking more time to cover the performers in the movie, offering whatever background is known about them. The conversation also veers into representation and the positive and negative aspects of the film in this light. It’s an in-depth look into the film, running almost the same length as the main feature at 63 minutes.
Criterion then adds some new features, including a self-playing gallery that features a slideshow of the film’s performers before presenting production and promotional photos, including posters, for the film. They also include an episode covering the film from The Ticklish Business Podcast, posted on November 6th, 2019, and featuring Kristen Lopez, Drea Clark, and Samantha Ellis. I don’t listen to a lot of Podcasts, and I’m not familiar with this one, but from looking over the official site, it appears they focus on classic Hollywood films, just recently covering, by coincidence, Browning’s Dracula with special guest David J. Skal (as of this writing on October 30th, 2023). Though there is talk about the film’s production and how it impacted Browning’s career (the film destroyed it), the episode focuses on its depiction and representation of people with disabilities. Lopez, who mentions early on that she is a person with a disability, brings a personal perspective to the discussion, and she explains why the film is so crucial in this regard, calling it very progressive. The group also defends it from some of the criticisms thrown at it through the decades, addressing why they’re not entirely valid. The episode can feel meandering at times, but the discussion is interesting and worthwhile when it finds its focus. Still, I would have preferred it if Criterion recorded a new interview with Lopez in its place. The episode runs for about 51 minutes.
The second dual-layer disc contains the remaining features under each film’s submenu. The Unknown, along with Skal’s commentary, also includes a new 32-minute interview with Megan Abbott, who is here to talk about Browning’s career and the three films in the set. She works through each one, breaking down how Browning sets up each world (including their moral codes) and addressing the common themes. Castration as a metaphor comes up throughout the features (with Freaks’ original ending featuring an actual one!), but Abbott digs deeper into this subject with her piece, alongside other Freudian elements.
I enjoyed this one and almost wish that maybe she contributed her own commentary, maybe over The Mystic, as it ends up getting sadly overlooked, only receiving a 9-minute introduction from Skal. He ends up briefly covering its production with a mention of how it reused props from the silent version of Ben-Hur. This is the first time (that I know of) the film has been released on video, so it feels like a significant oversight not to dig a bit more into it.
The booklet makes up a bit for that with an excellent new essay about Browning and the films in the set, written by Farran Smith Nehme. Despite lacking material specific to The Mystic, the release still does a good job covering Browning's career and the other two films.
The Mystic gets overlooked, but Criterion’s special edition includes great features around the other two films alongside excellent new digital presentations, surpassing expectations.