Classic movie review: Freaks (1932)

Posted: March 31, 2014 in Drama, English language, Horror, Thriller
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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USA 1932

Director: Todd Browning

64 minutes

The historical elements of the following review were written with the help of the BFI (British Film Institute) programme notes

Currently showing as part of the BFI’s season Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censor, Todd Browning’s Freaks is one of the most controversial movies ever made. Based on Tod Robbins’ short story Spurs (1923), Freaks concerns a sideshow midget who falls for a beautiful trapeze artist, except that she is only interested in his money. Browning, who had worked in a travelling circus, sold MGM the idea of filming the story using real people with deformities. Keen to get into the growing horror market, the studio bought into the idea.

The first sign of trouble came after a disastrous preview, whereupon some retakes were shot and 30 minutes were cut from the film. Upon release the film was a major flop. Whilst people were quite happy to accept monsters based on make-up, they had trouble dealing with real “freaks”. MGM fiddled about with the film further, adding a ludicrous prologue in the form of a scroll, which was apparently intended to educate the viewing public into understanding the plight of the people they were about to see. They also added an epilogue so that the film would have a “happy ending” (some current versions of the film show this but others don’t). Despite this, for a long time Freaks was considered beyond the pale by many people. Some countries – including Britain – banned it altogether. Eventually, following a 1962 screening at Cannes and the film’s rediscovery by the counter-culture Freaks began to be reappraised and critically accepted.

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** SPOILER WARNING**

In the opening scene of Freaks a sideshow barker is preparing a crowd for the deformed people they are about to see, simultaneously reminding them that they are deserving of our sympathy whilst also hyping up the prospect of something horrific. As the crowd gathers round an exhibit a woman screams, and at this point we flashback to an earlier period at the circus. We are introduced to Hans and Frieda (Harry and Daisy Earles), a couple of circus midgets (to use the terminology of those times) who are engaged to be married. Unfortunately for Frieda, Hans appears to be smitten with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist more than twice his size. Cleopatra humours him, but when she learns that he is in possession of a considerable inheritance then she really begins to lead Hans on, and the little man leaves Frieda. Meanwhile, Cleopatra has actually begun an affair with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor). Eventually, Hans and Cleopatra marry. There is a celebration with lots of drinking, and the assembled freaks announce their acceptance of Cleopatra as one of their number, chanting “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble”. Cleopatra is suddenly horrified, and when she is handed a goblet of wine she tosses it over one of the little people.

Shortly after, Hans becomes ill, but Cleopatra is found to be poisoning him with the connivance of Hercules. During a stormy night the various freaks exact their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules. The latter is last seen lying in wet mud, with a knife in his side, as the rain pours down and various small and deformed people come writhing through the dirt towards him. Then we cut back to the present time and the sideshow barker is telling the audience that no-one knows exactly what happened to Cleopatra to make her the way she now is, at which point the camera pans down to show her as a grotesque: no legs, and with her lower half tarred and feathered to look like a duck.

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In all honesty, some of the acting in Freaks is not of the highest quality – one consequence of casting around for non-actors to play the deformed circus people. Nonetheless, there is a raw honesty in the way Browning portrays them. They are shown sympathetically, but not in a patronising way. There is one particular scene that takes place outdoors, where a group of performers encounter two strangers, one of whom is horribly prejudiced but one of whom behaves in a kindly way. Fortunately, the latter prevails. Elsewhere, we see the performers going about their daily business, alternately squabbling and laughing, just like anybody else might.

In essence, it is Cleopatra and Hercules that are the monsters in this film. In fact, in some ways it is perhaps unfair to label this as a “horror” film, as – viewed through modern sensibilities – the term is unkind to those people who, through a quirk of fate, happen to be physically different from the majority. Maybe Freaks is really a film-noir with a cast of differently-abled people. But before I veer off too far into politically correct reflections, it should be noted that the culmination of the revenge scene is quite consciously horrific. The sight of the strongman Hercules, lying wounded in the mud at night, as the storm rages, with an army of misshapen people writhing towards him with hate in their eyes, is extremely powerful and not easily forgotten (in fact, in the uncut version of the film, probably lost forever, Hercules is castrated and later seen singing in falsetto).

It is hard to imagine that Freaks could ever be remade and, as such, it is a unique contribution to the history of cinema.

Rating: 7/10

Showing at the BFI on 3rd April (20.50) and 21st April (20.50)

 

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