No matter how you approach it, Freaks is a peculiar piece of cinema. The title refers to people who make a living off their physical abnormalities on the carnival circuit. Not only are these ‘freaks’ the subject of the film, but also such performers make-up the majority of the cast. The graphic depictions of these people are fascinating enough, but the fact the film was made in the early 1930s makes it even more extraordinary. It simply does not fit any genre, and one has to admire the audacity of making it.
The plot, though simple, is powerfully executed within the social microcosm of the sideshow circus. A midget named Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova ). In order to win Cleopatra’s heart, Hans sacrifices the love of his long-time girlfriend and fellow midget Frieda (Daisy Earles). Cleopatra is in love with Strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and repulsed by Hans until she discovers that Hans is wealthy. Cleopatra and Hercules conspire to gain Hans’ inheritance by having her marry him and kill him shortly thereafter. During the wedding reception. Cleopatra is appalled to discover that in marrying a freak, you become one and are expected to live among them. They ritualistically welcome her into their fold by chanting ‘one of us’ and offering a sip from their communal goblet. Disgusted, Cleopatra refuses and taunts Hans, humiliating him in front of his surrogate family.
The freaks then discover Cleopatra’s plot to poison Hans for the inheritance. Within their code of loyalty they exact revenge for the stricken Hans. On a dark and stormy night they chase down Cleopatra and Hercules, killing him and mutilating her into what we later discover is a legless, scarred, voiceless side show attraction called ‘Chickenlady’.
It was not surprisingly a commercial failure. The film was made just before the potent Code era in which the US government oversaw the enforcement of strict censorship rules. The combination of graphic depictions of physical abnormalities, sex, violence and perceived exploitation led to a ban for several decades. Its reputation endured nonetheless, and we all know there is nothing like a ban to tantalise an audience and engender cult status.
It may also be a mistake to label the film as horror. It is certainly a morality tale, and possibly a thriller, but the horror label seems applied solely on the basis of the presence of real carnival ‘freaks’ in the cast. If anything the film diminishes in shock value as it progresses. The more screen time devoted to the freaks, the more desensitised and sympathetic the audience becomes to them. Which is antithetical to the nature of exploitation and the conventions of horror.
I do not mean to exaggerate the artfulness of the film itself. The storyline is simple and the dialogue is flat. The production values are pure B-movie level, even by the standards of 1932, and the acting by the ‘normal’ actors is abysmal. But ironically the ‘freaks’, who are essentially playing themselves, are the most natural of the actors in the film.
I disagree with criticising Browning for using of real ‘freaks’ in the film for two reasons. Using them is the only way the film could work, even today. Also there is no disrespect paid to the actors in any way. It was brave of Browning to not only present these people on camera, but present them with dignity. The film reflects realistic reactions and social mores. It’s an indictment of society at large that the ‘freaks’ who would likely have been ostracised and even institutionalised in the outside world create a functional collective in their sideshow company. One with the companionship, loyalty and comfort so often lacking among ‘normals’. At first the freaks seem grotesque and repellent, but it’s incredible how quickly they become sympathetic, likable characters.
Harry Earles as Hans is certainly an interesting ‘lead’ character. Between the poor audio track, his size-affected voice and a heavy German accent, I have no idea what he is saying 90 per cent of the time. But the character conveys real heartbreak and disappointment by the betrayal of his ‘normal’ wife. A little person who is also an aristocrat makes the character a refreshingly complex figure, as he is forced to reconcile his high status and privilege with the biases related to his condition.
I believe Freaks cult appeal runs deeper than simple fascination with and exploitation of the grotesque. Condemning this film as exploitative may be too simplistic, for it dismisses a rather groundbreaking bit of cinema. Some may perceive it (and even enjoy it) as such, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Director: Tod Browning
Writer(s): Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins (short story ‘Spurs’), Al Boasberg (uncredited), Willis Goldbeck (uncredited), Leon Gordon (uncredited), Edgar Allan Woolf (uncredited)
Runtime(s): 64 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.