Possibly the most controversial of the wave of horror films that started in 1931 with classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, Freaks is a true oddity. Perhaps too flawed to be a true classic, it’s been condemned as exploitation, banned, rediscovered, and its worth still debated to this day.
There’s trouble brewing under the big top of a traveling circus. Beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is adored by dwarf Hans (Harry Earles). Hans is engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles) and Cleopatra has eyes for thuggish muscleman Hercules (Henry Victor), but when Cleopatra finds out that Hans is heir to a fortune, she marries Hans and then begins to poison him. And when Hans’ fellow “freaks” – midgets, microcephalics, people without limbs, and more – find out, they take a terrible revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules.
Like one of its circus performer characters, Freaks is a movie that walks many tightropes, and this is what has given the film its lasting power over the years. This is nowhere more prevalent than in the film’s use of real people with real physical anomalies to portray the “freaks”. Stephen King once wrote that we can only feel comfortable with horror when we can see the zipper on the back of the monster suit. And while the circus freaks in the movie are not the monsters of the film (that dubious honor goes to the characters of Cleopatra and Hercules), their physical differences are unsettling even to modern audiences. The impact of this was even greater back in the 1930s - as film historian David Skal points out in his insightful commentary, at the time of the film’s release many considered those with physical deformities to be “subhuman” – microcephalics (called “pinheads” in the film) were often exhibited in carnivals as “missing links” between apes and men.
The question of whether or not the film exploits the “freaks” is a question that has been asked since the film’s release. Certainly they’re made to appear horrific in their final scene when they take revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules, but it’s also clear that the audience is seeing the freaks through Cleopatra’s and Hercules’ point of view. Browning wisely refrains from making the movie a “freaks vs. normal people” conflict. Two of the circus’ “normal” performers, seal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) and clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), always treat the freaks as they would any other fellow performer in the circus; Venus offers Frieda a shoulder to cry on and Phroso joins the celebration when the Bearded Lady has a baby. And there’s a fun sequence when the circus ringleader visits all the performers and we get to see how they’ve learned to use their anomalies to make a living: limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his own cigarette and legless “human torso” Johnny Eck gets around on hands as well as anyone could with legs.
Freaks suffered problems with censorship from the very beginning, and the 62-minute running time of this cut is drastically shortened from its original script. Moreover, the original ending has long since been lost, and up to three different endings have been in circulation at one point or another. The film was a box office failure and was later shown under misleading titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes, luring viewers who thought they would see a nudie film. In England the movie was banned for thirty years.
Much as I’m against censorship, it’s probably best that we’re seeing Freaks in a somewhat abbreviated form. The film feels longer than its just-over-an-hour running time. The first 45 minutes are downright sluggish at times, with humor that doesn’t quite work and choppy transitions between scenes. Browning’s best work was in the silent era, and he shows his discomfort with sound films clearly. He isn’t helped by the fact that many of the performers give awkward, stilted line readings (Daisy Earles in particular) and that the accents and sound recording limitations sometimes render dialogue unintelligible.
But the film kicks into overdrive with the wedding banquet. At first humorous, the scene escalates in tension as Cleopatra and Hercules get very drunk, make fun of Hans, and openly display their passion for each other. Hans is humiliated, Frieda leaves, and the freaks pass around a loving cup filled with champagne, singing that they accept Cleopatra as “one of us”. Cleopatra reacts with scorn and revulsion, and her fate is sealed.
The DVD offers up a fine set of extras – all of the endings that can be found, a featurette on the film and the performers, and commentary from Skal (whose book The Monster Show also covered Freaks in detail) that describes cut scenes, the reasons for the intensity of the reaction to the film on its release, and the life and work of Browning and many of the film’s performers.
It’s not always a comfortable viewing experience, but there will never be a movie like it again. Horror aficionados owe it to themselves to see Freaks.