#81 Nightmare Alley

Watched: January 29 2017

Director: Edmund Goulding

Starring: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Ian Keith

Year: 1947

Runtime: 1h 50min

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Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley brings us back to the carny world of Freaks, complete with a Geek (not the computer kind though; more the rip-the-heads-off-of-chickens-with-his-teeth kind). It’s a world we’ve missed and we were very happy to be back.

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The Geek is ever present though never shown on screen. Our filthy, sensationalist minds were only slightly miffed.

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Zeena, Mentalist Princess (Blondell), is mentoring Stan (Power), an ambitious young carnival performer. Stan learns of a secret code which Zeena and her now alcoholic husband Pete (Keith) used to “tell fortunes” back in their Vaudeville days, and he is set on learning it. However, Pete will have none of it and forbids his wife from teaching it to Stan or anyone else.

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“If only something could befall this desperate alcoholic..!”

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One dark night, there is a fatal (if accidental?) mix-up of bottles, and Pete has drunk his last drop. Unable to perform alone, Zeena teaches Stan the code and the two of them resurrect her old clairvoyant act. That is, until Stan is caught fraternizing with fellow performer Molly (Gray) and the lovers are forced to marry, leave the carnival and set up on their own.

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Sparks quite literally fly

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With his new wife, Stan starts performing in hotels – a step up from the traveling carnival circuit and with a slightly more powerful and respectable clientele. As his audience and his reputation grow, he strikes up a (probably platonic) relationship with a consulting psychologist, Lilith Ritter (Walker), who treats many of the city’s elite. When he learns that she records her sessions, he teams up with her to use her clients’ personal information to gain their trust and their money.

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He underestimated how fatale this femme really was…

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Stan becomes the victim of his own hubris and ambition. No matter how many of the women (and Tarot cards) in his life try to warn him that he is crossing the line he keeps pushing, making himself out to be almost a Messiah figure, and in the end something’s got to give. The story comes full circle – we start and end in a traveling carnival where people make their own fate. Nightmare Alley is in many ways an Ikaros-tale, and it’s an intriguing and hypnotic watch. We absolutely loved it!

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Also, Joan Blondell, who we loved in the Busby Berkeley musicals, got even better with age!

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What we learned: Never trust a professional conman. Or a consulting psychologist. Also, do not take the Lord’s name in vain.

Next time: Odd Man Out (1947)

#22 The Island of Lost Souls

Watched: August 21 2016

Director: Erle C. Kenton

Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke

Year: 1932

Runtime: 1h 10min

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Based on H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Island of Lost Souls opens with shipwrecked Edward Parker (Arlen) being rescued by a floating zoo. After an altercation with the captain he is unceremoniously tossed off the ship to a remote island owned and operated by mad scientist Dr. Moreau (Laughton) where Parker runs into several scary humanoid creatures. This being the 1930s though, everyone is very polite about the whole thing and he is invited to stay the night in Moreau’s house.

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“Oh, they’re harmless. There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever that I have this huge fence outside my house.”

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The creatures in the jungle are the experiments of the good doctor, who we learn was driven from London when one of his experiments escaped. They are mutated and surgically altered animals kept at bay through “religious” doctrine, enforced by “The Sayer of the Law” (Lugosi). Moreau then decides to introduce his only female creation, the Panther Woman Lota (Burke – credited only as “the Panther Woman”), to Parker and see if she’ll seduce him. Because that what fathers do with their daughters.

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“Sure, I may be engaged, but if she’s not really human, am I really cheating?”

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Like Frankenstein, Moreau has a pesky little God complex which will (of course) be his undoing, and like his German counterpart, he will learn that if you create life and mistreat your creation, you gonna get fucked. Meanwhile, the audience are treated to such simple philosophical questions as “what makes a soul?” and “what makes humanity?”

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Again we put it to you to guess who the real monster is

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This film is awesome – easily the best adaptation we have seen of Wells’ novel (which we haven’t read, but we’ve seen three film versions, so we like to pretend we have). It’s beautifully shot and has some great performances. The only thing missing is a song- and dance-number but, fortunately for us, The Mighty Boosh took care of that. Enjoy!

What we learned: Oh so much! Ships make people slaphappy; Bela Lugosi is awesome even in small roles; don’t play God and mess with nature unless you want to be killed horribly; watching Freaks and The Island of Lost Souls back to back before bedtime will give you weird dreams.

Next time: Love Me Tonight (1932)

#21 Freaks

Watched: August 21 2016

Director: Tod Browning

Starring: Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles

Year: 1932

Runtime: 1h

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A personal favourite of ours, Freaks is a cult classic everyone should watch. Cleo, a beautiful trapeze artist in a travelling circus, starts flirting with one of the sideshow “freaks,” little person Hans, for fun. When she discovers his wealth, she teams up with lover and resident strong man Hercules to hatch a sinister plot. Hans marries Cleo, breaking the lovely and gorgeous former fiancée Frieda’s heart in the process, only to be poisoned on his wedding day.

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Fortunately, nobody let a little thing like the poisoning of the groom ruin a perfectly good wedding party!

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Even if you haven’t seen the film, you must have come across the chant “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! We accept her, we accept her! One of us! One of us!” which is how the “freaks” welcome Cleopatra into their midst. She, however, is not impressed and has no intention of being associated more than necessary with the ones she feels are beneath her. She ridicules her new husband and his friends and Hans realises he’s made a huge mistake just before gets sick from the poison.

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Pictured: pure hatred and dawning realisation. And drunk dude.

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The sideshow performers look after their own though, and when they learn what Cleo is doing, they start plotting a little revenge. And what a vengeance! On the road during a storm, the “freaks” go after Cleo and Hercules and make sure they really become “one of us,” turning them into the freaks they so desperately despise.

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“Who’s the freak now, bitch!”

We cannot express how much we love this film. Throughout the main narrative there are loads of subplots revolving around the daily lives of the circus performers which normalise and humanise them, making the actions of Cleo and Hercules even more despicable and leaving no doubt as to who the actual freaks are.

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Hint: it’s not these guys.

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What we learned: “normals” are the real freaks. But we already knew that. Also, Frieda is the most adorable woman you’ll ever see, Daisy is a fool for marrying Roscoe (he treats her like crap!), Venus and Phroso are wonderful people, and American Horror Story: Freak Show owes pretty much everything to this film.

Next time: The Island of Lost Souls (1932)