Retro Review: FREAKS (1932)

Back reviewing Tod Browning’s infamous film.

Freaks - CoverLittle person and side show circus performer Hans is infatuated with trapeze artist, Cleopatra. Regardless of their size difference Hans pursues Cleopatra and to his surprise she is receptive, openly flirting back in front of others. His friend and fellow little person, Frida, is skeptical of Cleopatra’s supposed love for Hans, having seen the mockery from the other circus performers that occurs behind his back. It doesn’t take long before Cleopatra and Hans become engaged, his blinding love for her not aware of the apparent joke to the relationship. Not even Frida can convince Hans of the false as her suspicions prove right. The facile Cleopatra in all actuality is marrying Hans for his rich inheritance and intends to run off with the Strong Man, whom she’s been seeing in secret throughout the course of her time with Hans. When Cleopatra exposes herself for who she really is at their reception, the sideshow performers extract a revenge that may only be seen in circus.

Tod Browning’s notorious film to this day still considers as an outre and lurid masterpiece. The over the counter film is a breath of its own kind, as nothing will come quiet like it. The use of real sideshow performers as well as Willis Goldbeck’s script not only shocked audience but caused utter disgust for the film, essentially ending Browning’s career. The film’s ban was incentive by the outcry of unruly exploitation of the sideshow’s actors, which I’m sure was more about the audience discomfort than it was about the actual people. I’m in objection to this as FREAKS is less of a horror film and more of a portrait of the life of the circus performer. The main plot focuses on shallow cruelties that those who are born with deformities can suffer but the rest of the film opts for a behind the scenes of the complicated but normal relationships between the troupe. It’s almost like a soap opera, if you will. There isn’t any apparent exploitation but rather a study of the average life of an individual with physical anomalies.

As Browning went about casting real sideshow performers the acting can reflect such. There isn’t an distinguished display nor an inconsolable awfulness to it. Harry Earles is charming as Hans if not a bit daft as Olga Baclanova Cleopatra is of that old school Hollywood glamor, her motions and speak being exaggerated for effect often making her transparent. The characters I took more too was Leila Hyams as Venus, Wallace Ford as Phroso the Clown, and Daisy Earles as Frida. Again the acting in those vary but overall their characters attracted an interest and liking on my part. The film is shot well, the set design being mostly composed of the performer’s trailers but overall has a convincing feel of the circus. However, the most crucial scene is when the sideshow performers go after Cleopatra and her lover, the notable Human Torso belly crawling in the mud with a knife in mouth. Without it the film would lack any relative horror but with it conceals the film in our genre.

Freaks - Dinner

The lost footage is so disheartening, it’s almost painful. I’d of love to have seen the more gruesome ending and controversial alternative fate to the Strong Man. A proper re-release of the original directors cut would have been incredible to see in scope, but we may thank MGM for that dream never becoming real. Without the extensive violence the black and white film may seem tame to modern horror lovers who embrace the most gory (or gross) of scenarios, but there’s still an appreciative scare in the ending’s odd and unsettling outcome. FREAKS was ahead of it’s time as far as forty to fifty years, its aesthetic value in the horror community having gone unappreciated for quite long. It was also part of the pre-code era, there was no MPAA and the restrictions produced a lot of rebel films that would have themes that were deemed inappropriate for a PG audience. This remains as the only issue with FREAKS as the usual critiques of the acting, run time, etc don’t apply. It is a film of its own.



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