Freaks and The Fly

This week was Halloween week (a little early of course), so my class got to watch probably the scariest movies a university is allowed to show without prior warning. AKA they were more disgusting odd, than scary.

First up for the doubleheader was the 1932 film, Freaks . I’m trying to find the best way to say this… but I felt like an absolute terrible person for watching this movie. For the first half of the film, I couldn’t get over how exploitative the entire film was. I remember at one particular moment, one of the “freaks” was being highlighted and a few people in class laughed — it took everything in my power not to start glaring. I think that was the biggest problem I had with the film, the fact that it was made with people who were laughed at on a daily basis, brought into the circus because they were quite literally sideshow freaks.

That being said, I loved that the “freaks” were the victors in the end, they were the hero of their own story. While they might have had a few flaws, and there definitely could be a case for Hans allowing love to blind him, every. single. villain. in this story was one of the “normal” people. And they got their due-diligence in the end. I’ve decided that nothing in this world could be more terrifying than a little person crawling through the mud during a thunderstorm, under a stage wagon  with a switchblade in his hand – and I thought that scene was filmed beautifully. Hercules thought he had rid himself of his only nemesis once he fought off Phroso, but then he gets stabbed in the back with a knife. Suddenly, every single “freak” who is capable starts to come out of the woodwork, slowly appearing under the stage wagons  slowly creeping toward Hercules, who is trying to get away. I liked the idea that since he overlooked them, he never viewed them as a threat until they became the biggest threat to his existence.

Freaks was more of an appropriation instead of an adaptation of Tod Robbins’ “Spurs” because it changed several vital elements of the story, mostly the third act of the story/film. In the short story, we learn that Hans and Cleopatra (separate names in the story because of the location), haven’t been living the ideal life. Hans was still embarrassed by Cleopatra during their wedding reception, but the end result was drastically different.

Hans abuses Cleopatra, forcing her to walk the distance of France with him on her shoulders, he digs his gold spurs into her sides, and whenever she is disrespectful, he sticks his dog on her. The drama climaxes in a scene which I think would have looked amazing on film, Hans riding his dog, a sword drawn like a knight, where he then takes down Hercules (Simon in the story). However, this scene in the story leaves the reader not really knowing who to like, there isn’t a single character left that readers particularly enjoy or support — everyone is a terrible person.

The same cannot be said for the movie, and I think that was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers. Hans and his group of friends are the heroes. Hans gets to have a happy ending, a reunion with his true love, Frieda. The ending also results in Cleopatra basically turned into a freak herself because she poisoned Hans, one of their own.

I knew the film would be shocking, mostly because several of those diseases can now be helped by modern medicine, and I’ve never seen people like that beyond pictures — but I think I was more amazed that there are still people who are as terrified today, as if this was still 1932. When I was searching other people’s comments on this film on tumblr, I found this post: http://donaldmania.tumblr.com/post/34239580896/did-anyone-else-get-scared-from-the-ending-of#notes, she’s from Missouri, so it’s just irony that she made this post the same day we watched Freaks, but I loved what she said:

“Did anyone else get scared from the ending of “Freaks”?

I mean, I know they said they’d make Olga Baclanova’s character ”one of them”, but I didn’t think they meant it literally.

Geez, I wasn’t expecting such a sight. I almost screamed out loud.”

I almost want to ask her if she was serious, but I think she was. And that is why this film has stood the test of time; it still has that shocking quality, while still making “normal” people regret their actions and beliefs.

————————————————

The Fly was the second movie in our Halloween doubleheader, the 1986 version by David Cronenberg, featuring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Let me just start this discussion with a statement: I never thought I would be as disgusted while watching a movie as I was during the food poisoning scene in Bridesmaids. The Fly took that challenge and gave me acid vomit that burns a guys hand and foot off, falling muscles, rotten ears and ripped off fingernails — and don’t even get me started on the whole birthing a maggot scene.

Touche, The Fly, touche.

For everything that The Fly was nasty, it was also just… weird. When I read the short story this movie appropriated, I was able to read it with the idea that it’s the late 1950s, science fiction is wildly popular and extremely exaggerated. I was able to believe that in their imagination, teleportation would be possible, because they were still exploring science. I know the 1980s had its share of bad science fiction movies, and part of me wants to include The Fly in that list, maybe at the top.

I was left with more questions than answers and as I look this movie up on the internet (91% on rotten tomatoes, an Oscar for best makeup, over $40 million in the box office, the tragic love story viewers couldn’t get enough of), I can’t help wondering what I missed. Why don’t I like this film as much as everyone else? I thought Jeff Goldblum’s performance was the best part of this entire film, watching him go from this nerdy, insecure introvert who is so ignorant and self-absorbed, he doesn’t even notice that Ronnie tells him straight away that she’s a journalist, “I have two other interviews”.

That is definitely a problem throughout the film, Brundle letting his hubris get the best of him. He should have never brought Ronnie to the lab, especially if he knew she was a journalist, he should have waited until he tested the baboon before going through because then the fly wouldn’t have been there, he should have checked the results of the teleporation after he started noticing how good he felt. Brundle is at fault for the entire movie, so even though I’m supposed to feel sympathy for him and his loved ones, watching him slowly deteriorate like this, I can’t.

I also can’t feel a lot of sympathy for Ronnie in this movie. She basically fell into this relationship with Brundle, and there isn’t a very good measure of time, but I thought they moved rather quickly for her to be so madly and devastatingly in love with him. I never saw any reason for her to not like Stathis, he was there for her the entire time, and obviously something had to happen for them to have broken up, but I thought he was more of her boyfriend than Brundle ever was.

There is one question I have, that I still can’t seem to find an answer for. How in the world did Brundle get two baboons?! Seriously, aren’t those protected creatures? And I’m pretty sure they were living in the carrying cases by the door. And the fact that he wanted to do experimental tests on them? Ridiculous. Not only would PETA and basically all animal rights lovers have a fit, but Brundle allowed Ronnie to film the test. I guess this is just another example of Brundle’s self-absorption getting the best of him.

There is so much that could have been done to this story, especially with “The Fly” short story as the basis, that I don’t quite know why it went this direction. Or maybe I’m just emotionally stunted and I couldn’t get the attachment that drove this film. Either way, I was a little grossed out and not very interested. 

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