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Year Released: 1932
There was one movie my grandfather was obsessed with from his youth, one he would always discuss when reminiscing on how much he enjoyed going to the horror matinees. That film was Tod Browning's notorious Freaks, a story of love and revenge set in a seedy traveling carnival.
He would vividly recall the brutal conclusion where a legion of actual, malformed freaks pursue an evil woman through the rain and the mud, chanting, "We will make you...we will make you...one of us...one of us." He seemed to remember in great detail what the freaks did to her once they caught her, and describe her torture at their hands.
What struck me as amazing after seeing this film for the first time (maybe 10 years ago) was its enormous restraint in presenting grisly violence, but the sight of seeing real freaks (not some actor in a mask or ape suit) pursuing a woman was a sight so bold for 1932 that people's imaginations went wild.
Director Tod Browning, who directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, actually worked at a carnival sideshow while growing up. At age 16, he ran away to join the circus. His new life consisted of drifting from town to town, a carnival barker who befriended life's outcasts, a collection of pinheads and dwarves, bearded ladies, Siamese twins and men without arms or legs.
He knew their tight bonds formed since it was them against a world repulsed by their ugliness. He culled a fascination with the grotesque and fueled that with his fervid pulp imagination to create several crime and horror films influenced by the sideshow.
Though many have viewed Freaks as bizarre geek-show exploitation, even going so far as to ban its release in some countries for over 30 years, it's difficult to condemn a movie which makes these so-called monstrosities into its most sympathetic characters. Browning never uses the film as an attempt to mock them, often using his camera as an attempt to chronicle their behavior.
Three pinheads dancing around in a circle wearing shoddy summer dresses and offering bashful smiles to passers-by...the torso-man, without arms or legs, skillfully lights a cigarette using only the cigarette box, the match, the box and his mouth...the armless lady drinks wine using her feet. These images are filmed with admirable good taste and refrains from judging them.
If anything, the movie is a fable about accepting others as you would want to be accepted yourself. Unfortunately, the studios and general public didn't see it that way. Freaks was a commercial and critical flop all around. Just as the normal world shunned the freaks Browning knew growing up, so did his audience when he put them on-screen.
Only 40 years later did the film become recognized as a cult item and quality film, one which can safely be said to have been far ahead of its time.
* * *
The story is as simple as a fairy tale, running only a little over one hour of screen time. A dapper midget named Hans (Harry Earles) feels a forbidden love for a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), whose "normal" exterior belies a cruel and callous heart. She and her scheming boyfriend, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor), plot to marry the little man for his great fortune, then poison him. Midgets are not strong. No one would miss him, would they?
In one of the movie's most unnerving sequences, Hans' freakish companions gather for the wedding banquet pounding the table and chanting, "Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us." A grinning dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) passes a wine goblet from one to another and they each sip, whipping themselves into a joyous frenzy which is disrupted by Cleopatra pouring the contents of the goblet over the dwarf's head and laughing at him.
Cleopatra makes the foolish mistake of mocking their efforts to bring her into their fold and openly expresses her disgust at these abominations. She then casually flirts with Hercules right in front of poor little Hans, and slips some poison into his champagne. Little does she know that her every action is being watched by the legion of freaks, who plot their brutal revenge.
How Freaks Holds Up
The film holds up extremely well today, though there are no good prints currently available. The sound is lousy, and some of the freaks speak in impenetrably thick accents. Sometimes, the print is so worn out that a few times during the film, you can barely make out the actor's face. Despite these flaws, the emotion and authenticity shines through, though, as the freaks carry on with their lives around the tents and boxcars.
While the film throws in some padding with a friendly clown (Wallace Ford) and his girlfriend (Leila Hyams), who are kind to the freaks and even come to their aid throughout the film, and their rat-a-tat dialogue feels dated and corny, it doesn't really hurt the film. Browning manages to cut through the cheese factor by showing the clown designing some of his circus acts (including a bathtub with no bottom, which comes in handy during one romance scene).
In addition to the revenge story, there is one other subplot involving the freaks. Violet and Daisy Hilton, the Siamese twins, have both fallen in love with two different guys. There are some weird scenes where one of them is courted by a stuttering lover while the other gazes off at the distance or reads a magazine. The inevitable scene where one gets kissed and the other reacts is a small classic of mondo weirdness which is oddly touching.
* * *
Anyone who sees Freaks will be unable to forget the conclusion, set during a wild rainstorm, where the freaks crawl through the mud underneath the horse-drawn carriages pursuing the strongman with glittering knives. We never see what they do to him, but we know it can't be good. (Tod Browning actually planned on showing his fate, but the castration was too brutal to get past the censors.)
Similarly, we see Cleopatra threatened by a knife wielding dwarf and Johnny the Half Boy (Johnny Eck), who draws a luger and casually wipes it down with a white handkerchief. When she escapes from her room, she is chased into the woods by a legion of freaks, but we don't actually see them inflict damage on her.
The film is so powerful that audiences imagined graphic torture and mutilation (my grandfather certainly did), which is reminiscent of Tobe Hooper's goreless The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Folks could have sworn they saw limbs go flying in that movie. Such is the power of implication which allows the audience to imagine something more horrible than the filmmakers could create.
Tod Browning does indulge us in a final shot where we see the outcome of the freaks' experiment on Cleopatra. Though he tosses a tacked on happy ending for Hans afterwards, the real conclusion is when a carnival barker reveals his new sideshow freak. How they got her that way, we'll never know. That will remain the mystery of the freaks.
Review published 01.12.2001.
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