The Unknown ★★½

The Unknown (1927) is a strange little nightmare of a film that has little by way of substance but manages to be quite disturbing nonetheless. Not wishing to spoil its brief contents I will not reveal much, only that, like his later Freaks (1932), Browning's film centres around jealousy in a circus. These two films (the only Browning I've seen) make me think of him as a bit of a proto-Cronenberg, as both represent an early type of body horror. They seem to have come out of his own experiences in the circus, which he joined in 1896 at the age of sixteen. Browning was later in a terrible car accident in 1915, crashing full-speed into a moving train, badly injuring him and killing actor Elmer Booth, brother of Margaret Booth (editor for the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty and many other films). One has to wonder whether this event did not inform his interest in the strange type of compromised physicality that seems to be his signature. Based on these two I am not sure whether I'll seek more out, though he does more or less seem to have invented his own genre, and one that perhaps has later adherents. Jealousy at the circus plays a role not only in Disney's Dumbo (1941) but in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Different as these films are, both share enough of a nightmarish quality—and the latter a train-wreck nearly involving loss of limb—that one has to wonder whether Browning's influence wasn't lurking in the background.