Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! See the Freaks!

Schlitze laughs.

Schlitze laughs.

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?

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Tod Browning with some of his extraordinary cast.

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.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

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.

Just a regular day at the circus.

Just a regular day at the circus.

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.

One piece of the tragic love quadrangle.

Three pieces of the tragic love quadrangle.

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.

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

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.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Hans' sistser

Daisy Earles as Frieda.


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.

They're coming to get you, Cleopatra.

They’re coming to get you, Cleopatra.

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.

The Sisters.

The Hilton Sisters.

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.

Prince Randian.

Prince Randian.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010

Curio Curia

What is it about novelty exploitation cinema that tickles us so? What? You’re not tickled? Well, maybe it’s just me then.

A tumbleweed rolls by a stark western street. A buzzard caws and flaps away. A rock tumbles down a stony plateau. Suddenly, in the distance, the thunderous patter of horse hooves on the tough desert floor. A miniature carriage erupts passed a rickety wooden gate. It is pulled by a dozen adorable Shetland ponies. The diminutive driver whips the dwarf steeds to a fine halt and the little people inside disembark. It’s a wild west inhabited entirely by little people! So what do The Wizard of Oz and classic cowboy melodramas have in common? Well, if you’re referring to The Terror of Tiny Town they share a lot of the same cast (the Munchkins anyway).

Ruggero Deodato’s infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)

Curios and novelty films are generally categorized by their kookiness and, occasionally, exploitation-type setups. Exploitation cinema generally targets specific obsessions such as blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, etc. They find a controversial theme and make the given novelty a sort of mini-genre unto itself. They went in waves…and the surf took a much harder pounding in the 1970s. There was a whole world of movies catering to all sorts of peculiar tastes and usually without the benefit of a large budget. Jungle cannibals, ethnic retoolings, vampire lesbians, shocking violence, schlocky monsters, and weird pagan rites abound in this realm.

Sometimes they weren’t just shocking or bad. I am actually particularly fond of a few of these oddball curios. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) was an all little-person cast cowboy movie and it was never meant to be a really good movie, but you know what? I liked it. Chained for Life (1951) starring the famous conjoined twins, the Hilton Sisters, and the legendary original shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962) are also worthy of a looksie in my opinion. They may not have been made to be great, but they might just still entertain you.

tiny town

The Terror of Tiny Town is a fun little western flick with all the classic twists of a full-size cowboy melodrama. This movie gets written off as a mere triviality, but it’s actually a prime example of how an endearing curio can work. There is nothing in the plot, characters, or random musical numbers that is particularly great. It’s your typically thin B-grade ’30s cowboy plot with the good guys and the bad guys, and it would be great enjoyable pulp in any size. The kicker is that its novelty makes it something of a standout. If the cast was full of big people nobody would care about this movie, but since the story has been adapted for all folks under 4′ 10″ it becomes unique. I was actually surprised the film didn’t take more cheap shots at its stars (considering it’s supposed to be an “exploitation” movie). Although scenes of ten-gallon-hat-wearing desperadoes walking underneath the saloon doors might be considered somewhat insensitive, it’s still a good joke and I do thrill at the racing Shetland pony-drawn coaches. It’s got some decent songs, laughs, action, and splosions.

What actually struck me as being more odd than a midget western, was that most of the actors had heavy German accents.

tiny town 2

As a fan of Time Bandits, For Y’ur Height Only, and Even Dwarfs Started Small I hesitate not to add The Terror of Tiny Town to my list of must-see little person movies.

Next movie! I first became acquainted with the conjoined Hilton Twins from the spectacular movie Freaks (1932), directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, The Unholy Three). They played the only thing they could play: themselves. Joined at the hip, the Hilton Twins had to do everything together. A popular vaudeville act, they were used to being billed as a novelty, but one thing you definitely notice when watching them in both Freaks and Chained for Life is that they are very natural and there really isn’t anything “freakish” about them. 

chained for life'

Chained for Life (director Harry Fraser’s last film) has Violet and Daisy Hilton starring as a conjoined Vaudeville singing act, Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton (not too big a stretch with the names there). The movie is a sort of flashback from a trial. Vivian has murdered her sister Dorothy’s husband, but the courts are not sure how to prosecute the guilty party while sparing the innocent. Through the many testimonial flashbacks we see how it all happened. Dorothy was conned into a publicity marriage by her manager (played by Allen Jenkins who I mainly remember as being the elevator guy in Pillow Talk) and a slick double-crossing stage magician, Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval). The movie depicts Dorothy’s longing to be separated so she can have a normal life; Vivian’s shrewdness and ardent distrust for Andre; and Andre’s two-timing. The courts refuse to let Dorothy obtain a marriage license because they would consider it bigamy. They are outraged, but they make it swing via an oblivious blind minister. After the publicity marriage, Andre dumps Dorothy and Vivian vengefully murders him. The film avoids resolution and instead tries to stump the audience with its bookend scenes of the judge (Norval Mithcell) openly asking the audience how he should rule.

chained shot

A few things that make Chained for Life so intriguing is how they manage to keep half the twins in the dark about certain information. Usually one has to be asleep or there’s a curtain between them. It tends to create very odd juxtapositions that almost feel like a metaphor for the dual nature of mankind. The other fun aspect of the film is the frequent use of Vaudeville acts (I suspect to pad the film to feature-length). There’s a wise-cracking juggler, a man who does bicycle stunts, and an accordion player who blasts through The William Tell Overture in record time, in addition to the Hilton Twins three duets they sing together.

It’s meant to be pulpy and forgettable, but it does delve into some fascinating subject matter regarding the lives and limitations of conjoined twins (particularly in the prudent early 1950s). All in all Freaks is a billion times better, but this is a welcome treat for people who want more of the Hilton Twins.

mondocane2

Mondo Cane (1962) is famous for being what is considered the first shock-umentary. Shockumentaries take controversial, perverse, sensational, disturbing, and yes, shocking, documentary subjects and show you, the viewer, just what kind of strange sickness exists in this world. Often times they stage much of the main action and embellish the facts to make things more than what they really are. Mondo Cane was the first and would influence a whole new genre, the most famous offspring being Faces of Death (1980) and its sequels. Cane, the product of filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi, is a warped, ironic, and actually quite humorous look into strange and disturbing customs all around the world. Where the film obtains its charm is not from its unflinching gluttony for its disturbing subject matter, but the humor it finds in juxtaposing the most bizarre and grotesque exotic rituals with more familiar “civilized” acts that mirror them. This film loves irony. Almost the whole movie could be described by a narrator saying, “You think that’s gross? Well, take a look at what your neighbor does.” The narrator is probably the best part of the movie too. He almost sounds like the guiding voice through a classic Disneyland ride like The Haunted Mansion. 

You will see pet cemeteries; people cutting their legs with broken glass as they run through the streets; geese force-fed meal all day; tribal ladies cooped up in cages and waited upon; dogs being cooked; people exalting effigies of Rudolfo Valentino; women painting their bodies blue to create “art”; a woman breastfeeding a pig; Japanese businessmen getting hosed off in a strange spa; shark torture; and much, much, much more.

mondo_cane

Although some of the movie is fabrication, that is not necessarily the point. Flaherty staged a lot for Nanook of the North (1922) to show the world what the life of an Eskimo might look like, not necessarily an Eskimo named “Nanook” specifically. Cavara, Jacopetti, and Prosperi just want to have fun at your expense and present the world as one weird, sick, funny place. More than present true realities, it wants you to reconsider your own lifestyle before judging others and it attempts to put these seemingly shocking incongruities in perspective. I may not appreciate the entire shockumentary mentality, but I did enjoy Mondo Cane.

These movies sometimes get unfairly looked down upon, but you know something? They’re still entertaining little curios, novelty or not. For singing dwarf cowboys, conjoined twin murder trials, and a buffet of international eccentricities check out The Terror of Tiny Town, Chained for Life, and Mondo Cane.