|Director: Tod Browning|
|Screenplay: Waldemar Young (story by Tod Browning) |
|Stars: Aileen Pringle (Zara), Conway Tearle (Michael Nash) Mitchell Lewis (Zazarack), Robert Ober (Anton), Stanton Heck (Carlo), David Torrence (James Bradshaw), Gladys Hulette (Doris Merrick), DeWitt Jennings (Inspector of Police)|
|MPAA Rating: NR |
|Year of Release: 1925|
Like his previous film, The Unholy Three (1925), Tod Browning’s The Mystic is about a group of carnival workers who use their tricks of the trade for criminal purposes. In this case, the ruse involves a supposed mystic who is able to conjure up spirits of the departed in elaborate séances, a trick they carry from the dusty fields of various carnival stops in eastern Europe to the penthouses of New York’s wealthy elite (Browning’s cinematic fascination with such schemes dates back at least as far as his 1915 film A Phony Séance). Although often associated with Browning’s other carnival films, including The Unknown (1927) and Freaks (1932), The Mystic uses the fake séances as a starting point for what turns out to be a fairly conventional romantic melodrama.
The titular mystic is Zara (Aileen Pringle), a fortune teller who works a popular illusionist stage show in a Hungarian carnival owned by her boisterous father, Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis). They join forces with an American con man named Michael Nash (Conway Tearle), who introduces himself by saying that he is always after the money and already has his sights set on Doris Merrick (Gladys Hulette), a wealthy and naïve heiress. Michael has been appointed her guardian, so he has easy access to her everyday life, which allows him to set up the phony seances that are designed to lure her into giving up her fortune by leading her to believe that she is following the will of her deceased father. Much of New York high society is easily duped, as well, although a skeptical police inspector (DeWitt Jennings) has his reservations.
The film’s highlight is a lengthy séance in the massive central room of Doris’s high-rise penthouse, where a group of one-percenters gather in a semi-circle of chairs while Zara, decked out in elaborate garb (designed by outré French fashion designer Romain de Tirtoff, better known as Erté), sits in a massive throne-like chair in front of them and supposedly channels spirits from the afterlife. Browning, who also provided the story for Waldemar Young’s screenplay, gives us both a front-row seat for the phony séance and a backstage pass to its inner workings, which involves a false panel in the baseboard, some electric wiring, and plenty of strategic darkness.
As it turns out, though, Nash starts to fall for Doris, which naturally causes him to think twice about his criminal ruse, much to the chagrin of Zara (with whom he is romantically involved), her father, and her accomplice Anton (Robert Ober), all of whom stand to lose out financially if they aren’t able to grift Doris out of her fortune. This is all standard criminal melodrama, but Browning directs it with enough unique flair (and an insider’s understanding of how the carny game is played) to make it stand out from the crowd, especially when we see it in light of his future films.
|Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers Criterion Collection 3-Disc Blu-ray Set|
|This two-disc Blu-ray set contains three films: The Mystic (1925), The Unknown (1927), and Freaks (1932).|
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 (all films)|
|Audio||English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (The Unknown and Freaks)Linear PCM 2.0 stereo (The Mystic)|
|Supplements||Audio commentaries on Freaks and The Unknown by film scholar David J. SkalVideo introduction by Skal to The MysticTod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema documentaryVideo interview with author Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horrorEpisode from 2019 of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business about disability representation in FreaksReading by Skal of “Spurs,” the short story by Tod Robbins on which Freaks is based Prologue to Freaks, which was added to the film in 1947Program on the alternate endings to FreaksVideo gallery of portraits from FreaksEssay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme |
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||October 17, 2023|
|Criterion’s two-disc set “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers” is a major release that reveals three of the director’s most significant later films in an all-new light. Freaks has been given its first high-definition transfer, which has it looking better than it ever has on home video (the last official release was back in 2005 on DVD); The Unknown has been restored and reconstructed for an all-new transfer; and The Mystic is being released on video for the first time in Region 1. Freaks certainly looks the best of the three films, as it was scanned in 5K from a 35mm nitrate duplicate negative and a 35mm safety print. The 1.37:1 image looks excellent, with solid detail, contrast, and black levels, which are particularly important in the dark, rainy climax. There are few if any signs of age and wear, and any digital restoration that was done has left intact the film’s fine grain structure. The Unknown was the hardest of the three films to restore, as an opening title card explains that it “was reconstructed from the only two surviving nitrate prints, a French-language version in the George Eastman Museum collection and a Czech-language version in the Národní filmový archiv, Prague.” The intertitles were “recreated based on the original cutting continuity provided by Jon Mirsalis.” The reconstruction, alas, was not perfect, as some material remains missing: “Based on the music cue sheet, the original release length of the film was 5,470 ft. The length of this reconstruction is 5,326 ft.” Nevertheless, this is a major improvement over previous DVD releases, even though the results are rough at times, with instances of irreparable damage and missing frames. The Mystic looks quite a bit better, even though it is two years older. That film was scanned in 2K from a 35mm safety fine grain print, which looks surprisingly clean for its age. |
As far as sound goes, Freaks’ original monaural soundtrack was restored by Criterion from an archival two-inch magnetic track. As an early synchronized sound film, its soundtrack is a bit thin and flat, but it works perfectly well. Both The Mystic and The Unknown have been given new musical scores. The Mystic features the better of the two, as sound designer and composer Dean Hurley has put together an engrossing, hallucinatory score that makes use of all manner of instruments including classical guitar, accordion, pump organ, and bells (not surprisingly, he has collaborated with David Lynch on a number of films). The soundtrack also features quite a few sound effects, such as footsteps, doors closing, papers rustling, and so on. The score for The Unknown by prolific silent film composer Philip Carli is quite good, as well, although it is a more conventional piano-only score.
Not surprisingly, film historian and horror film expert David J. Skal, co-author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre, had a major hand in many of the supplements. Skal provides informative new audio commentaries for both The Unknown and Freaks, as well as a 10-minute audio introduction to The Mystic. He is also recorded reading the entirety of “Spurs,” the Tod Robbins short story on which Freaks is based. The two-disc set also includes the 2004 documentary Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, which runs an hour in length and previously appeared on the Warner Bros.’ Freaks DVD. We also get a new 30-minute interview with crime novelist Megan Abbott about Browning’s pre-Code film career. To give some further context for the controversies around Freaks, the disc includes a 2019 episode of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business, which focuses on the representation of disability in the film. From the archives we have the Dwain Esper-added prologue to Freaks, which was tacked on starting in 1947 and was misunderstood for years as being part of the original film; a 6-minute featurette about the film’s alternate endings; and a video gallery of portraits from Freaks.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection