By: Sean McLaughlin
As a general rule, I despise remakes. To me, it just shows Hollywood’s overall lack of originality and utter contempt for its audiences, and breeds nothing but laziness. Sure, there have been a few exceptions (such as last year’s Evil Dead movie), but the many ruin it for the few. Remaking movies that are already done well is unnecessary, and a slap in the face of the original director’s entire career. However, I’ve also held the belief that there are a handful of movies that are considered “good”, but if done right could’ve been great (Westworld, comes to mind). The Museum of Wonders, an Italian art film from director Domiziano Cristopharo, attempts to remake (or rather, re-imagine) 1932’s Tod Browning cult-classic Freaks. It is a faithful remake right down to the cast of characters, modernizing the post-silent era film with dashes of art-house pizzazz and tattoo shop swagger.
To put it bluntly, The Museum of Wonders is nearly identical to Freaks’ heart-breaking storyline. Sideshow organizer and dwarf circus owner Marcel is about to inherit quite a bit of money, while beauty Salome carries on a love ruse in an attempt to ultimately get his cash. Oh, and she’s carrying on a love affair with strongman Sansone. Marcel’s group of friends and oddities, meanwhile, try their best to show Marcel that he’s being played for a fool. When Salome becomes more brazen in her contempt for the freak-show performers at the wedding reception (echoing the famous “One of us!” scene from Browning’s film), Marcel and the others plan their ultimate revenge.
First off, the dialogue in this film is in Italian. So if you have any issue with the subtitles option on your Blu-Ray player (like I did initially), good luck. Once that was resolved, what The Museum of Wonders presents is an engaging plot (although a derived one), and a cast of characters that the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow would be more than proud to feature. Cristopharo and writer Elio Mancuso update the “freaks” that today’s society shun. Browning’s pinheads, amputees and midgets are replaced in this movie by extreme body-mod addicts, tattooed piercing enthusiasts and……well, midgets. According to modern society, at least for now, these are the folks that are cast away from the mainstream. Their contempt grows with each rejection, as does their undying loyalty to one of their own. The cast of this film does a pretty solid job of showcasing the hatred and fear they possess for others as well as some in their inner circles. The dialogue is convincing, probably because only a few characters actually deliver any lines of substance. The clowns and sword-swallowers, after all, do their talking by their actions. Given the production value (this IS an independent movie, after all), Cristopharo and his crew do a commendable job of giving Museum an artsy and sophisticated feel. The score, as well, is the perfect creepy and ominous compliment to the dark subject matter.
Where this film goes off the rails a bit, in my opinion, is in its propensity for concocting art from nothing. In parts, it gets to be too cute, adding in random quick shots of the surreal or a flaming mini-human/living reality check that spends several minutes spouting random lines of irrelevant schlock. These devices force the story to drag a bit in spots, as if they’re added to stretch the total film time to around an hour and a half. The payoff is worth it, but the journey may test your patience.
Is this enough to sink this ambitious remake of an 80-year-old classic? I don’t feel that it does, as the story, most of the visuals, and the “cool” factor in The Museum of Wonders still allow it to stand on its own in a positive light. There are also several European 2010 film festival awards that can attest to that. Valentina Mio and Fabiano Lioi are convincing in bringing Browning’s Cleopatra and Hans characters to the current cinematic stage. Cristopharo does a respectable job of slightly changing my mind on remakes, at least for the time being. Although, the fact this isn’t a Hollywood production, and tackling an old film that was arguably in need of an update, also play into that. Check out this film, if presented with the opportunity.