It’s one of those films that movie nuts grow up hearing about. Banned for years. Directed by the guy who did the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Oh, and starring mostly sideshow talents of the day. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a sort of holy grail for many years. Based on Tod Robbins short story, “Spurs,” Browning’s film would prove to be a controversial classic of the grotesque and remains unique and controversial to this day. What sort of deranged mind could be behind such a disturbing landmark film?
Tod Browning (one of my personal favorites) actually had a rather close relationship with the circus growing up and in the early 1900s the great American sideshow was a huge attraction. People would flock to the circus to see wild exotic beasts, incredible feats, and see the unusual and deformed bits of humanity that were sadly usually kept behind locked doors at the time. This was Browning’s turf and, after having directed several weird movies in the silent era with men like Lon Chaney, Sr. (including West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown) and proving he could be a master of supernatural horror culminating with Dracula, he was the perfect gentleman to adapt Robbins’ dark tale of carnival carnality and revenge.
Freaks employed such circus sideshow talents as Prince Randian the Living Torso (otherwise billed as the Human Caterpillar); Schlitze, the pinhead; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who would also star in Chained for Life); Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo the Bird-Girl; Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton; Josephine Joseph the Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; and a host of dwarfs, Pinheads, and assorted legless or armless people.
The plot revolves around the sociopathic but beautiful trapeze acrobat, Cleopatra, who takes advantage of the rich lovestruck dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three). But Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Man Who Laughs) is actually romantically entangled with Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra seduces the gullible Hans and marries him only to plot to poison him to death and take his fortune. All the while she and Hercules mock the “freaks” and laugh at Hans. Oh, how they shame him. And then it happens. Cleopatra and Hercules become acquainted with the code of the freaks and revenge is served up cold and horrific.
Although a horror movie about so-called freaks, what will surprise most viewers is the humanity and compassion Browning displays. Where Count Dracula is wholly evil and inhuman, the Freaks are simply people with fascinating lives (albeit, a bit more complex in some situations) who only seek to live in harmony . . . but will violently defend the honor of one of their own disgraced brothers. Perhaps the code of the freaks strikes a slightly more mythical chord, but at the core of this gnarled beast of a film beats a heart with real feelings. Two “normal” circus folk, Venus and Phroso court each other and are friends with the sideshow folk. The conjoined Hilton sisters share comical moments with their future husbands. The Bearded Woman has a baby. Madame Tetrallini holds the Pinheads close to her bosom like a mother. Real affection exists in this cock-eyed world of circus shadows and abominations. They are a tightly knit family. They celebrate a wedding feast together and attempt to inaugurate the odious Cleopatra into their world—much to her chagrin and disdain.
Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartbreak of the dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles), as she watches the man she loves, Hans, forsake her for the bigger woman and get maligned for it by the whole circus. Even though Hans ignores Daisy and pursues only the diabolical Cleopatra, Frieda still loves him and weeps for him when he is ridiculed. Earles had worked with Browning before for The Unholy Three and he and his sister both give fine performances here.
Freaks is a challenging film. It challenges the audience to see these people as human beings, and skilled ones at that (most of the cast gets a chance to perform bits of their acts throughout the film, such as when the limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his cigarette with only his mouth). It challenges people to not underestimate those folk whom may strike one as incapable or inconsequential. It challenges us to accept the acts of violent revenge as poetic justice. It challenges our preconceptions about the world and those in it. It is tragic, comedic, emotionally compelling, and in its final moments it is a full-fledged horror movie complete with lightning, creaky carnival convoys advancing in the night, and deformed aberrations clamoring through the mud for soft places to sink their knives into. It is the stuff horror legends are made of and it is what has made this cult classic a lasting part of our cinema history.
Like its predecessors—Dracula and Browning’s earlier silent horror flicks—Freaks is a deeply atmospheric journey through shadowy realms of the grotesque and strange. For all its controversy and shock appeal, Freaks is a fine film with fascinating characters and a pleasing story that builds in emotion and suspense. Freaks is an oddity that gets better upon each viewing. It was almost an antidote to Dracula. What could be more of a reversal of Lugosi’s singular embodiment of undead evil cleverly disguised as a debonair and charismatic noble? Come to see Freaks for the promise of deformity and tales of the peculiar, stay for the heart, humanity, the satisfying horror climax, and genuinely surreal coda.
Top 10 Reasons to See “Freaks”
1. It’s a classic horror film from the great golden age of movies.
2. It’s better than Dracula.
3. It casts real sideshow performers as both human characters with ordinary (and unusual) problems and as misunderstood objects of horror at the same time.
4. It was banned in several countries for decades…making it kind of awesome.
5. A real life brother and sister play romantic interests (not necessarily cool, just sorta weird).
6. See if you can recognize one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.
7. It is a movie that is really hard to forget once you’ve seen it.
8. Halloween is fast approaching and you’ve already seen that Saw garbage.
9. It adeptly combines elements of classic horror with humor and some good old-fashioned creaky melodrama.
10. Because I demand it of you.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010