The 1932 film Freaks (5th Avenue Cinema; 9 pm Friday, Aug. 8; free) is a certified classic. This landmark film assembled a cast of real circus workers—including dwarves, a bearded lady, a “human skeleton,” conjoined twins and the limbless Living Torso—for a fictionalized, lurid look behind the curtain of the big top. To this day, horror fans gush over the enduringly creepy atmosphere, and its famous “one of us, gooble-gobble” sequence has been quoted so often, by everyone from Robert Altman to The Simpsons, that people recite the line without knowing its origin.
But at the time, the film was considered an abomination. It effectively killed the career of Dracula director Tod Browning, a former circus barker who was given license to do whatever he wanted, only to have his film banned in some countries and generally considered too grotesque for audiences.
But Freaks isn’t a horror film because of its climax, in which the circus performers disfigure a trapeze artist who plots to seduce and murder a midget for his inheritance. The comeuppance is nasty (in an earlier ending rejected by preview audiences, her co-conspirator was castrated), and the image of knife-wielding carnies crawling through the mud is unsettling. But that’s beside the point.
The real horror lies in the film’s tagline: “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?” In a pre-Munchkin Hollywood, turns out nobody could. The “one of us” sequence—in which chanting freaks offer a symbolic chalice to a “normal” woman—is mistakenly remembered as a cultish act of assimilation, with a beautiful woman dragged into a world of terrors. In fact, the freaks are welcoming her with open arms and a “loving cup,” only to have their generosity thrown in their faces.
Viewers came to leer at monsters, not be confronted with their own prejudices. It’d be like tuning into Honey Boo Boo and finding an eloquent Mama June quoting Hammurabi. We love our freaks, but we’re terrified of them suddenly becoming human.
- Timed wonderfully for Hump Day, Cinekink returns with an 11-year retrospective of sex-positive filmmaking, plus a new series of shorts featuring things that are actually pretty long. Clinton Street Theater. 7 and 9 pm Wednesday, Aug. 6.
- Top Down presents 1953’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Dr. Seuss’ terrifyingly surreal tale of child slavery and the horrors of piano lessons. Hotel deLuxe. 8 pm Thursday, Aug. 7.
- In 1969, documentarians Albert and David Maysles visited the Altamont Free Concert for peace, love and the Rolling Stones. Instead, they captured a concertgoer’s murder, and with it, the death of the ’60s. Gimme Shelter remains a riveting portrait of the demise of a dream. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm Friday-Saturday, Aug. 8-9.
- Don Bluth’s An American Tail tells a classic American immigrant tale through the eyes of an adorable Russian-Jewish mouse. But would it have killed him to get Neil Diamond to provide the soundtrack? Because Fievel singing the Jewish Elvis’ “America” seems like a solid choice. Academy Theater. Aug. 8-14.
- How do you win the heart of the woman you love? Stalk her into submission. Thanks for the restraining order, Say Anything…. Laurelhurst Theater. Aug. 8-14.
- Perhaps Wes Anderson’s most polarizing film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou might be fluff, but Bill Murray as a faux Jacques Cousteau is enough to keep it (sorry) afloat. Friday’s screening is paired with the Cousteau doc Voyage to the Edge of the World at 6:30 pm. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 8:30 pm Friday, 5 pm Saturday, Aug. 8-9.
- The less you know about 1992’s surreal Arizona Dream, the better. Lest you doubt its commitment to weirdness, know that it stars Johnny Depp, Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway and a fish. Clinton Street Theater. 7 pm Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 9-10.
- Before Boyhood, Richard Linklater spent 20 years chronicling a relationship with the Before Sunrise series, beautifully following a romance from star-crossed to stagnant. 2004’s Before Sunset might be the best, though 2024’s Before Apocalypse sounds promising. 5th Avenue Cinema. Aug. 8-10.
- One old-school circus act missing from Freaks is a giant. The Princess Bride, on the other hand, includes history’s best giant, in the form of Andre. Pioneer Courthouse Square. Dusk Friday, Aug. 8.
- Mary and Max is a bizarre and touching clay-animated feature that uses its strange aesthetic and the power of words to dissect depression, loneliness and mental disability. Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Sunday, Aug. 10.
- Kung Fu Theatre brings back Invincible Armor, a film that proves even an indestructible warrior is vulnerable if you thwap him in the junk. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Aug. 12.