The 1932 film Freaks caused an uproar on release and seriously damaged director Tod Browning's career. It was banned in the UK and the studio cut large chunks of the film after disastrous test screenings and tagged on a new beginning and ending bringing the film to just over an hour instead of ninety minutes (the original version no longer exists). Instead of using make-up or effects Browning cast real "freaks" in the various roles leading to charges of exploitation.
The plot concerns a travelling circus and specifically a trapeze artist called Cleopatra who dupes the rich midget Hans into marrying her, all the while carrying on an affair with Hercules the strong man and plotting to kill Hans and get his money. When the freaks find out one of their own is being mistreated in this way they exact a terrible revenge.
The film opens with a strange written history of freaks through the ages, hinting at some kind of clan mentality, a code of freaks. Into the action and a circus announcer is presenting the freak show, he goes to reveal the first exhibit and we cut back in time to hear the story of this particular freak.
Hans the midget is shacked up with Frieda but he has eyes for the trapeze artist, Cleopatra. She happily accepts his attention and leads him on, encouraging him to shower her with gifts. Meanwhile she starts an affair with the strong man named Hercules. At first this is all a joke to Cleopatra but when Frieda appeals to her to stop making a fool of Hans she lets slip that he has a fortune and Cleopatra resolves to marry and murder him to get her hands on the cash.
There are a number of other characters, the ex lover of Hercules, the friendly clown Phroso and of course a large cast of circus freaks including the human skeleton, the pinheads, the Siamese twins, the bearded lady, half-man half-woman, the torso, the armless girl and the half boy who walks around on his hands. They were all real circus freaks with real conditions most of which have been eradicated by advances in medical science. The attitudes towards them must be viewed as a product of the times and it is clear Browning meant the film to be sympathetic towards them, portraying them as kind and caring while the real monsters of the film are the scheming Cleopatra and her lover Hercules. However as a source of horror Browning used them in much the same way as the circus did, to attract fascinated punters to gape and marvel, something which is now unacceptable in our politically correct society.
Despite murmurings and suspicions the wedding proceeds but at the reception Cleopatra kisses Hercules and after one of the most bizarre scenes in cinema history where the freaks start to dance around singing "Gooble-gobble....we accept her....one of us." Cleopatra loses her composure and launches into a stinging tirade before storming out of the party. In the next few days Hans falls ill and the freaks find out Cleopatra has been poisoning him. Events spin out of control and Cleopatra and Hercules are punished for their nasty plot which makes for a shocking and explosive ending.
As a horror film this is very effective mainly due to the shock ending. Browning clearly had a talent for direction and there are several memorable scenes, my favourite is the confrontation with Cleopatra when one of the midgets simply pulls out a knife and starts cleaning it creating a chilling air of menace. The wedding reception scene where Cleopatra reveals her true colours is also unforgettable.
Browning actually worked as a circus performer for years before he entered the film industry and drew on that experience for the film. He obviously wanted to show that physical appearance is not the measure of a person, it's what's inside that counts. It is worth pointing out that the initial reactions to the film and the banning of it in some countries were based on people being repulsed at the deformed cast and it is only in recent years that the film has come under attack for being politically incorrect and exploitative.
Freaks is ultimately a poignant tale, a skilfully made film with an incredible finale and although it may offend modern sensibilities it is worth trying to bear in mind that Browning's intention was not to dehumanise the freaks but quite the opposite and it was this intent that saw him lambasted and the film banned by a society with very different values back in the 30's.Short Review
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