The title of this classic 1932 film is not what one might call politically correct. There are few films in all of cinema that can be classified in the horror realism genre (one might think of The Blair Witch Project or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they are severely flawed wannabes). Yet, director Tod Browning’s Freaks is one of those few films that blends realism with horror. The freaks in the film’s title are actual 1930s carnival and circus freaks, with all of their deformities on full display. It is said that Browning had the largest casting call of professional freaks ever, and it shows. When watching this film one can’t help but be disturbed by some of the afflictions of these “freaks.” Quite frankly, this is an odd, disturbing film. The film was so shocking that it was actually banned in a number of places. It was later rediscovered on the art house circuit and today is a common staple of TCM’s October schedule.
Browning, of course, is most known for directing Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula (1931). Yet, many film critics consider Freaks to be his masterpiece (not that there was much to choose from) because of his unflinching presentation of another strange reality unfamiliar to the common moviegoer. I tend to agree with the critics on this one. In regards to the horror genre, I find Freaks much creepier and frightening than Dracula. Now, if you want to see a truly frightening take on the vampire myth watch Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922).
The film opens with a carnival barker explaining the events that led to the beautiful “Peacock of the Air”, trapeze artist Cleopatra’s (Olga Baclanova) horrible current state. At this moment, one might prepare oneself for watching a trapeze act gone terribly bad—one would be wrong. Instead, one is treated to one of the strangest downfalls in all of cinema history. It would seem that Hans (Harry Earles), a wealthy carnival dwarf (don’t ask why he works in a carnival if he’s rich, just go with it) is smitten with Cleopatra. Her beauty and “normalness” makes Hans forget all about his dwarf fiancé Frieda (Daisy Earles). Seeing an easy way to rid themselves of the carnival life and all of the freaks they despise, Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules (cliché, anyone?) hatch an unsavory plot. By feigning love and admiration for Hans, Cleopatra convinces the dwarf that they should marry. This leads to one of the strangest wedding feasts ever.
The assembled guests at the wedding table consists of all freaks, sans Cleopatra and Hercules. This is a sight to behold. After consuming way too much alcohol, one of the freaks informs Cleopatra that she is now one of them. Oh, no you didn’t! This, of course, enrages Cleopatra and she launches into full bitch mode by calling her guests “dirty” and “slimy”. As if that wasn’t enough, she belittles and demeans her new husband by carrying him around on her shoulders like a child or, even worse, a pet chimp. This does not bode well for the wedding night. Which, of course, leads to the reason why Cleopatra married him in the first place: so she and Hercules could kill Hans with poison and then run off with his money.
The scene where she informs Hans that she could never love a freak like him and that their marriage is a sham is difficult to watch. The look on Han’s face is just so pitiful. I suppose Harry Earles had a lot of past insults to draw from when it came to playing this scene. Shocked and humiliated, Hans collapses—of course, the poison didn’t help either. Counting their chickens before they’ve hatched (if you’ve seen this film, you know this is a sad attempt at a pun), Hercules and Cleopatra freely discuss how many doses of poison it will take to kill Hans. When another freak overhears them, he goes for a doctor. Of course, the dose was so small that the doctor thinks it was an accident and he pronounces that Hans will make a full recovery with the aid of his medicine. Well, now you know that instead of giving Hans his medicine she’s going to substitute poison! In the end, the freaks band together and issue their own sadistic form of retribution. Hence, the grisly spectacle that the carnival barker is describing to the crowd: a legless squawking chicken-woman. What an ending… Oh, wait, yes, upon orders from MGM they had to tack on a happy ending with Hans and Frieda. Personally, the film should have ended with that shocking image of Cleopatra.
While this is not the greatest film you will ever see, it is an interesting watch. The pure shock value of some of the scenes is enough to warrant spending a mere 64 minutes watching Tod Browning’s best film.
Kim, it's great to see you writing again! You have been missed. Freaks has always been a favorite of mine. That may sound unusual to some people, but difficult as it is to watch, I always felt that Browning gave the unfortunate people a chance to present themselves as just like other people. Some were mentally retarded, such as the pinhead women, but most all of them were mature adults. They fell in love, they had friendships, they had babies, they were just people dealing with incredible hardships. The circus was their only way to make a living, and they did so with as much dignity as was possible. In that respect, I think the movie was not just a ground-breaker, but an opportunity for the physically fortunate to see that these folks were human beings.ReplyDelete
From a personal experience perspective, I am old enough to remember the last of the freak shows at the State Fair when I was a kid in the early 60's. By that time, most of the truly pitiful folks were no longer exhibited. I remember an armless man, the Rubber Man who could contort himself incredibly, and a hugely fat woman called Jolly Dolly. There were others, but I remember even as a kid knowing it was trickery, such as the snake woman and a mermaid who was obviously sitting behind an aquarium with a fan blowing her hair! But when Jolly Dolly would struggle to her feet and dance, her face was so blank and she never looked anyone in the eye. That made me cry, and that was the first and last freak show for me.
Really good article on a movie that always fascinated me, and one that I think was just considered shocking and not seen as the portrait in film of people who had never been given the chance to be seen as just as human as anyone.
Thanks, Becky. Glad to be back to blogging again. I agree that Freaks was groundbreaking of many levels.ReplyDelete
Becky is right. You can't let so much time go by without writing. Remember, you're one of us!ReplyDelete
In all seriousness this is just a good film, but I would recommend it to anyone because of it's uniqueness alone.
Welcome back, Kim! For me, FREAKS is the sort of film that is hard to watch and hard to take your eyes from at the same time. The plight of those people who were/are considered "freaks" brings to mind THE ELEPHANT MAN and the moment when John Merrick cried out that he was "a human being"...ReplyDelete
Fantastic post. It was exactly what I was looking for. Nice and concise.ReplyDelete
Eve: Good point of refrence regarding The Elephant Man.ReplyDelete
Raven: Glad to be back.
Alesum: Glad you liked the post. Please read often!!!
A very late "concur" from me as well. I see Freaks not really as a horror movie, but as a humanistic advocate for the crippled, disabled and retarded. The story is seen from their point of view and their solidarity at the wedding dinner as well as their internal love stories and and banter makes them very human indeed. In this movie it is the "normal" people who are the monsters.ReplyDelete
You are correct: Browning makes the "normal" people out to be extremely base.Delete
Hi, after reading this awesome piece of writing i am also delighted to share my familiarity here with friends.ReplyDelete