Rated: not rated :: Released: 1932
Director: Tod Browning :: Starring: Olga Baclanova and Harry Earles
By M. Glaessner
11 October 2005 — If you ask me, in the realm of monster movies, nothing can top Tod Browning's 1932 effort, Freaks. I am not talking about the infamous Troma movie Bloodsucking Freaks; although that's probably worth a watch too in its own quirky respect. For you horror fans who are truly obsessed with the genre, I am taking you back here to its very beginnings. Tod Browning was a veteran of Hollywood, having directed the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi and the groundbreaking London After Midnight with legendary silent film actor Lon Chaney. Despite Freaks being a labor of love for Browning, MGM shunned the picture and only chose to release it in trashy movie circuits before it was banned entirely in the US. The surrounding controversy was widespread, and when your film can't be obtained legally and the only person who's saying they liked it is the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, you know your popularity is in trouble. And, with that, Browning's career was mostly killed off.
However, thankfully for us, it has recently resurfaced on a brand spankin new DVD.
The Freaks referenced in the title are the Depression Era sideshow freaks that were made famous by various traveling carnivals. For a fee one could stare at these deformed individuals, all of whom were otherwise kept hidden behind a curtain. Indeed, the uproar that surrounded this film dealt with the fact that Browning had chosen to cast actual sideshow folks with physical abnormalities. Audiences complained that the casting of such individuals was "exploitative" and most certainly distasteful. What was overlooked at the time was that the freaks in question were actually portrayed in a very positive light. In fact, it is the "normal" humans whose actions are completely deplorable.
The plot primarily revolves around Hans (Harry Earles of The Wizard of Oz Munchkin fame), a midget sideshow performer who is stricken with love for a full grown, curvy trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Not only does Cleopatra not love little Hans back, but she is determined to manipulate him into marrying her so she can kill him and steal quite a hefty fortune. Of course, Hans' fellow carnie pals know what Cleopatra is up to, and as the huckster points out in the beginning, "Offend one, and you offend them all!"
Where the actual horrific elements in this film lie is up to interpretation. Audiences at the time were used to the Frankenstein monster. And while the characters in this film are not covered in makeup and brought to life in a lab, I think the fascination carries the same idea. Freaks features a bearded lady, a woman with no arms who can eat using her toes, a "human worm" of a man with no limbs at all who can light a cigarette with a match using only his mouth, and a very loveable pair of "pinheads" (just to name a few). Gawkers fear these kinds of people for the same reason they feared Frankenstein, because they are different. In contemporary society, people who share the abnormalities displayed in this film often face the same kind of alienation that the Frankenstein monster did. In fact, if Frankenstein were around during the Great Depression he probably would have joined a circus, and would have made damn good money too. Perhaps the real reason it still deeply disturbs some is the fact that the freaks do stick to their own honor code, administering their own form of justice to those who have gone out of their way to harm them. In '32, the idea that a pack of oddities could in fact be more worthy individuals than your average joe couldn't have gone over well; I'm not sure it still would in many cases.
Cinematically, Browning's Freaks is a pure delight. The camera does not shy away from any of the less flattering aspects of sideshow culture, which will surprise many who are used to the subtlety of older films. Some of the sound is admittedly muted at times, but the performances are fantastically over the big top and the dialogue is first rate. The humor, when dealing with a subject such as this, is obviously very well balanced and moments without laughs are seldom. (A favorite line of mine would be when the newly married husband of a Siamese twin says to his sister-in-law's hubby, "You must come to see us sometime.") I would especially recommend picking up this newly released DVD. It features great commentary from horror scholar David J. Skal (author of The Monster Show) and is a really strange artifact in itself. Recommended for all lovers of the mysterious and grotesque; if you don't enjoy it, you're probably not "one of us!"
Rating: 10 out of 10