They say it’s not what you have, but rather what you do with it. Thus is the case with this Italian film (with English subtitles). The story has been executed before with varying degrees of success. Let’s see if the plot sounds familiar to you:
A carnival (or in this case, the said Museum of Wonders) is run by a little person (in this case, with Achondroplasia, or Disproportionate dwarfism), who falls for a villainous woman who believes him to be rich, and so marries him. Meanwhile, she’s have a run with the strongman. At the wedding celebration she is welcomed into the group and in a drunken rage, insults everyone. Then it’s the carnies’ turn to dole out a hard comeuppance.
The first time (that I know of), it was Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), a movie so notorious that it was banned for decades, screened only at special showing until the 1960s, usually at either arthouses or drive-ins. It was then remade as the horrendous She-Freak (1967, produced by schlock-meister David Friedman). Now, the latest variation has come to the surface.
Nearly a sequel – f not a parallel – story to director Domiziano Cristopharo’s English-language House of Flesh Mannequins (2009), a theme of a dark room with glassed in people is a recurring locale.
What made the 1932 version so shocking, which is true to this day, is that real “freaks” were used, meaning pinheads, the legless Johnny Eck, and an actual Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, joined at the hip (among others). In the 1967 one, the freaks were more on the level of the bearded lady and a skeleton man. For this updated telling, while there is a little person and guy with a withered leg, the unusual amassed company is more made up of those with body modifications, such as multiple tattoos, piercings, and internal inserts (e.g., forehead horns, arm lumps); there is also an amazing sword swallower (who also appears to be the only one of the troupe who is a Yank).
Unlike the previous versions of this story, which were either a gritty noir story or silly ‘60s exploitation, this film has a different aim: it is going to straight-on dream-like reality, filled with philosophical and often obtuse language. Considering how beautifully it is shot and edited, its ambitious reach is hardly surprising. In the deleted scenes, we find that this is the ramblings (or dream) of a homeless drunk man who waxes poetic (sort of like the introduction to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps Lemmy Kilmister’s bookending in Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet ?).
Here is an example of a “Greek chorus”-type of meta narrative that runs throughout the film:
Everything changes dear gentlemen. Everything gets older at the sound of your words. Except for the eyes. They will always be compelled to tell the truth. A truth without palms. Always suspended on a veil of lies. Where life comes true. And where it leaves its fear. Like the hug of a shy clown. A tear for every fragment of infinite won’t be enough. Poor people.
Yes, this leans more towards Fellini or Bergman than Browning or something produced by Friedman. Truthfully, having seen Cristopharo’s previous film, while I wasn’t expecting something on the level of, say, Bloodsucking Redneck Vampires (2004), neither was I expecting something this far up the abstraction ladder. This is nearly poetry, though it left me feeling more like Purgatorio than Inferno (hey, what kin I yell yaz, I’m smart). This is not necessarily the fare I want to spend my Saturday afternoons watching, but it did make a nice change from the joyous inanities of Planet of the Vampire Women and Gums, in which this film fell in the middle of my viewing pile.
Cristopharo gets some fine work from his actors, especially his three leads: Fabiano Lioi as the little person, Marcel; the stately (and model-thin) Valentina Mio as his to-be punished wife (Mio is not mentioned in the film’s imdb site; I wonder what she did to offend the crew), Salome; and Francesco Venditti as the muscular Sansone (I’m guessing that’s Italian for Samson). It should also be noted that in a fantasy sequence, Maria Grazia Cucinotta plays Marcel’s grandmother.
There are three extras on the DVD, all of them of decent lengths, relatively. There is a deleted scene section which is worth viewing, a gag/blooper reel that is okay (but not translated), and a live performance by fire-eater and sword-swallower extraordinaire, Scott “Murrugun” Nelson, who also appears in the film as the sole American.
With a high-end pension for cinematography, writing and direction (and I should mention the wonderful soundtrack, make-up, costumes, sets and lighting, all of which are outstanding), it should be no surprise to anyone that this has won a few festival awards.