- Director: Tod Browning
- Writers: Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon, based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins
- Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry and Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Schlitzie, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, and Prince Randian
- Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#21)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV
A couple days ago we talked about how bizarre it is from a 2021 perspective that, in 1979, Woody Allen could make Manhattan and not only get away with it, but not even cause much of a stir. The story of Freaks is pretty much the opposite. In 1932, its mere existence was considered wildly controversial, primarily because of the inclusion of actual side-show performers, many of whom were severely disabled. The cast includes dwarfs, Siamese twins, a girl without arms, a guy with no limbs at all (who casually lights his own cigarette using his mouth in the background of one shot), several people with microcephaly (or “pinheads,” as they would have been called at the time), and many others. The controversy was not, as it might be today, that the movie was exploiting these people, but that just putting them in a movie at all was so horrific and disgusting that no right-thinking audience could possibly be entertained. Freaks was the follow-up of its director, Tod Browning, to his smash hit of the previous year, Dracula, and it was considered such a debacle at the time that it essentially ended his career. Today, however, it is this movie that is perhaps more likely to show up among critical recommendations than its predecessor.
Yet Freaks is hardly a stereotypical horror movie from a modern perspective, either. Unless you find people with severe disabilities horrifying just through their own existence, it is not a horror movie at all, I would argue, until the last ten minutes. At that point things take a hard left turn that retains far more power than one might expect from a movie from 1932. There isn’t that much, in my opinion, in Dracula that’s really still scary in 2021. The last ten minutes of Freaks are still just as frightening as they ever were. But if that was all the movie had going for it, it wouldn’t have been re-discovered the way that it has been. What might have confused people at the time is that this movie has an essential empathy for everyone in it. The “freaks” are presented entirely as real humans, with loves, foibles, and fears. When they turn on the “normal people” at the end, it’s been thoroughly established that those people very much deserve their comeuppance.
Browning’s sympathy for these people was likely a product of his origins. He ran away from his Louisville home as a teenager to join the circus, and had actually worked in a sideshow himself. Ironically for the future director of Dracula, he actually had an act where he would escape from being buried alive, billed as “The Living Corpse.” He eventually met fellow Kentuckian D.W. Griffith while working at a variety theater in New York, and followed him to Hollywood soon after, even serving as an Assistant Director on Intolerance. After making a name for himself with a series of silent horror films starring Lon Chaney, he made his big hit vampire movie for Universal, then was lured away by the deeper pockets (at that time) of MGM. Handed basically a “blank check” by studio head Irving Thalberg to make whatever movie he wanted, as long as it was “horrifying,” Freaks was the result.
Thalberg would later greatly regret his decision, as critics of the day were straight up offended by this movie’s very existence and it turned into a box office bomb. In desperation, MGM cut more than twenty minutes out of a movie that wasn’t that long to begin with, leaving a cut of one hour and two minutes. The longer version of the movie is now entirely lost, with Browning’s original cut one of the great holy grails out there for lost movie treasure hunters. Browning went on to make a few more movies, including the very weird Mark of the Vampire (in which he reunited with Bela Lugosi) and The Devil Doll, which is exactly the proto-Chucky nonsense it sounds like, but he found he had trouble getting anything green-lit and retired in 1939.
The screenplay for Freaks was very loosely based on a short story, with which it ended up sharing so few elements that the title card actually credits the movie as having been “suggested by” the story. Its story centers around a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who learns that one of the dwarfs in the sideshow, Hans (Harry Earles), has received a large inheritance. She sets out to seduce him, much to the consternation of his dwarf fiancee (Harry’s real-life sister, Daisy), while simultaneously conspiring with her lover, the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Hans and Cleopatra are engaged, and at the celebration feast the various sideshow performers pass around a cup of wine, each taking a sip as they all chant “We accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us, gooble gobble, gooble gobble.” Horrified at the idea that she is now “one of” the “freaks,” Cleopatra throws the wine back in their faces, and Hans realizes his mistake. Soon he falls ill from her poison, but survives. That’s when things really run off the rails. Hercules is killed, desperately trying to crawl away from the sideshow performers in a sea of mud. Cleopatra is then chased off into the forest and surrounded by the “freaks.” Cut to the framing device, in which a sideshow barker reveals the terrible “human duck” his customers have been gasping at: a mutilated Cleopatra, having finally been made “one of us.”
There are more scholarly readings of this movie around than there are minutes of film. Having been made at the height of the Great Depression, it has been suggested that it is a metaphor for the class struggle at the time, the “normal” performers looking down on the “freaks” the same way a robber baron looks down on his labor force. Others have thought they’ve found an anti-eugenics message, at a time when, as a theory, eugenics was sort of an in thing. Horrified to find some of the performers at a pond in his woods, one local comments that he “thought such creatures were smothered at birth by law.” Still others have pointed out that it functions essentially as a horror movie where the beautiful is supposed to be terrifying and what is traditionally considered ugly is presented as sympathetic.
Freaks has frequently been described as “ahead of its time.” I would say it’s closer to being a movie without a time, because it’s not as if you could make this movie today, either. And perhaps that’s for the best, because it seems likely no one but Browning could have made it anything other than pure exploitation. I found it to be a truly great horror movie in that final sequence, and before that most valuable for its general matter-of-factness about what it depicts. There are many scenes between side show performers that are meant as just a window into their lives. We watch them washing dishes, pouring tea, brushing their teeth, and it’s interesting because no other movie would show us those things.
Freaks has certainly had many direct and indirect influences over the years. It has been “unofficially remade” at least twice, once as She Freak in 1967 and again in 2007 as Freakshow (advertised on the DVD box as “Banned in 43 Countries” and “In the Tradition of Tod Browning’s Freaks”), and also served as the primary inspiration for a full season of American Horror Story. The Ramones were apparently inspired to write the song “Pinhead” (it’s chorus is just “Gabba Gabba Hey” over and over) when they saw the movie in Cleveland after a tour date had been canceled. Yet Freaks remains, somehow, entirely unique. One popular critic, Andrew Sarris, has called it “one of the most compassionate movies ever made,” and yet it ends with a lady being mutilated into a duck by circus performers. The history of cinema has many twists and turns, it turns out.