The “freak” film is a sub genre of horror film that has mostly been over looked by modern audiences but it was once something far more common place in the 50’s to 70’s. Nowadays most audiences only know of the auteur works of John Waters (Pink Flamingoes & Female Troubles) or David Lynch (Eraserhead & The Elephant Man) and the early films of David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers & Shivers) but there is a history of freak film that stretches across continents and genres and cultures and that is what Jack Hunter’s book Inside Teradome: An Illustrated History of Freak Film delves into.
In order to under the freak film you must define what it is and what types of films are included and that is exactly what Hunter does with the first half of the book (while the second part focuses on the films themselves and the film makers behind them). For those who don’t know (and generally speaking I was one of those people at first) the so-called freak film includes not only films about people or cultures with abnormal ways of life but also those who live such a life and have taken up the film industry as there profession. As described by Hunter, “The ultimate strain of bizarre cinema, a psycho-sexual fusion of the grotesque and perverse, haunted by primal specters of deformity and mutilation.” The book focuses mostly on Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) because this is not only a film that featured so-called real life “freaks” and circus performers but it also portrayed them in a sympathetic light as opposed to the “normal” people in the film. It is through the initial failure of this film (it did more or less kill Brownings career in films) and it’s now infamous undying cult status that Hunter explores the culture and importance of this genre of film.
The first part of the book describes all real manner of freaks such as those that suffered from all types of genetic maladies (as could be seen in the circuses up until the 70s) as well as those through mutation (due to the bomb) or war (mostly WWI vets who were disfigured). The book does go into the fall of the freak film as SFX in cinema began to rival anything that could have been seen in the real world. Hunter not only describes all of the maladies but has also put together an amazing collection of photos from all over the word (and illustrations and drawings as well) to show just how real some of these people suffered in their real lives only to replay them in front of a camera.
The second part of the book focuses on the film makers and films that embraced this type of taboo material from the before mentioned films of John Waters to the more obscure films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo and Santa Sangre) Werner Herzog (Even Dwarfs Start Small) and actors such as Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing) and Rondo Hatton (Jungle Captive, House of Horrors).
Hunter does an excellent job of presenting these films in way that will give readers an understanding of why they were so popular at one time in history and why there popularity has dwindled over the years to the point of having almost all but been forgotten. For those interested in this genre of film this is a great book to get you started.