Release Date: February 20th, 1932 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Tod Browning Actors: Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione
ltimately too weird for most audiences, despite containing two relatively standard love stories (though one is with midgets), this authentic sideshow portrayal asks for respect for freaks, yet dabbles in exploitation. It’s quite a sight, with a sense of fascination and voyeurism, a baby-faced avenger, disturbing sexuality, and the occasional documentary feel. Perhaps more of an important movie than an entertaining one, Tod Browning’s (who actually had a background in carnivals) “Freaks” is unquestionably unique.
Madame Tetrallini’s circus sideshow consists of many strange minions, including homunculi, pinheads, Siamese twins, armless, legless, and armless and legless people, a human skeleton, a half man-half woman, a stutterer (why is he a featured character?), and more. A code exists amongst the abnormal creatures: offend one and you offend them all. They survive by sticking together, so when Amazonian trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) flirts with dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) for idle amusement, it upsets the entire lot. When Cleo discovers the diminutive man has inherited a fortune that she desperately wants, she partners with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) in a dastardly plot to marry Hans, murder him, and split the wealth. Meanwhile, animal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) teams with Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) to help Hans’ girlfriend Frieda (Daisy Earles) reclaim her distracted lover.
Advertised as a horror film, “Freaks” isn’t so much about scares as it is a character study for a little person lead character. In that vein, it follows the template of creating human roles that are more villainous than the various monstrosities, as well as providing at least a couple of relatable “normies” that are incidentally entwined. The problems arrive when it’s immediately difficult to decipher what some of the freaks are saying, when many malformed troupers are introduced just to show them off (as are a few tricks by the sword swallower type performers), and when viewers aren’t given enough of an opportunity to sympathize with the misunderstood abnormals. Not even Hans deserves compassion because he has a fiancée and is presented as someone who should have known better and who possesses higher moral standards.
Although the visually striking stars of the show think and feel like regular humans, the censors of the time tore “Freaks” apart. It was cut by almost 30 minutes in order to play in New York, ended up with several alternate endings when test audiences became disgusted by the turn of events, and was banned outright in several countries. Admittedly, the hideous human duck might be a bit too much, but the exquisitely frightening climax in a mud-soaked road on a rainy night, with knife-wielding midgets and gun-toting grotesqueries, is a spectacle not to be missed.
– Mike Massie