Subjected to exploitation, financial abuse and abandonment, Bound by Flesh tells the inequitable story of Violet and Daisy Hilton, perhaps the world’s most famous pair of conjoined twins, who started out in sideshow attractions and performed variety shows across the U.S. for most of their adult lives. Their showy performances were a facade that hid the tragedy of their lives and the inequity they faced from birth. While they were classified as “freaks,” the film highlights how it was others’ actions towards them that was repugnant.
Director and writer Leslie Zemeckis – perhaps best known for small acting roles in husband Robert Zemeckis’ films, e.g., The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol – returns to the director’s chair and revisits the story of the Hilton twins. Zemeckis also wrote and directed the 2010 documentary Behind the Burly Q about burlesque performers, some of the footage, of which, features the Hilton’s and is used in Bound by Flesh.
Fans of Tod Browning’s 1932 cult-classic Freaks, might recognize the Hilton’s, who aptly portray the Siamese Twins featured in the film. Browning hired them at the pinnacle of their career – a career inarguably mired in exploitation. What Zemeckis does is pull back the curtain to reveal the fragile careers of the Hilton’s whose lives were filled with shady men, unscrupulous handling of their finances, theft, parental and managerial dereliction, stigma and a tragic departure. Some heinous examples of exploitation include a manager who abandoned the twins after a performance and left with all their earnings and a mother who took the young twins to pubs where men would pay to lift up their dresses and see their contiguous skin. For all their efforts and talent – the twins were multifariously talented, able to play multiple instruments, sing and dance (albeit awkwardly) during performances – they never earned their fair share or anything at all, at times. From birth, their world was pockmarked with injustice. The documentary makes one wonder if this was due to vulnerability and naivete of the business or their physical distinctness – their success, of which, would not have been possible without the latter.
The film throws back to an era where such physical differentiation were popular among the crass crowd who coveted seeing abnormalities as spectacle – the traveling sideshows or the “freak” shows as they were obtusely termed – only to leave such performers unemployed during the mid-century when such acts started fizzing out.
Zemeckis does a wonderful job of incorporating stock footage of the twins from their heyday, including archival photos and interviews from people who knew them personally and understood how others took advantage of them. It’s an informative, sympathetic documentary that’s both tragic and engrossing in the sense that it shines light on a story not well known. While some viewers may be familiar with the Hilton sisters’ performances and Hollywood presence, the documentary makes visible their internal struggle with an industry and industry personnel who treated them nefariously. Some nettles with anachronistic music in the beginning and rudimentary transitions aside, Bound by Flesh is carefully assembled, has interesting subjects as its focus, a healthy pace and, most importantly, offers audiences an honest look at the Hilton sisters that most people don’t get see or even know about.
Bound by Flesh opens in Los Angeles and New York and on VOD this Friday, June 27. The film will open at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and the IFC Center in New York City.