Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Tod Robbins
Cast: Wallace Ford (as Phroso); Leila Hyams (as Venus); Olga Baclanova (as Cleopatra); Roscoe Ates (as Roscoe); Henry Victor (as Hercules); Harry Earles (as Hans)
Synopsis: Within a travelling carnival and its sideshow "freak" attractions, the owner Hans (Earles), a midget, falls in love with the Amazonian trapeze artist Cleopatra (Baclanova). Unfortunately Cleopatra is in cahoots with the strongman Hercules (Victor), and the pair as well as being cruel and abusive to those within the sideshow have a plan for Cleo to marry Hans and poison him to claim his financial inheritance. However, as a carnival barker who bookends the film states, the sideshow "freaks" including a living torso, a bearded woman and "Pinheads" live by a code. In a world where they are discriminated against, they have their own community where they protect each other and deal with their own foibles; those from the outside who befriend them, including animal trainer Venus (Hyams) and Phroso the Clown (Ford), will be treated as equals, while those who trespass against them will suffer horrible consequences.
A lot of cineastes will know of Freak's notoriety. Banned in the United Kingdom, causing outrage in its country of origins, sold to Dwain Esper to be churned out on the grindhouse tent circuit until it was critically revaluated, living with the reputation as a thirties horror film that still surprises. More so today with political correctness, the film from the title to some of the words in the synopsis will be even more uncomfortable without having seen the film, and even to the cast it was a film both championed but also damned for its depiction of those with physical differences. As someone who grew up with a learning disability, autism, whilst I cannot compare to someone like Prince Randian, the living torso, who had no limbs to speak of, viewing Freaks more and more since I saw it the first time in college film studies has a different perspective for me as someone not part of "normal" society even if it's not because of a physical handicap.
In testament to the film, Freaks never mocks the titular individuals. While in broad brushes depicting the lives within a circus, the brief snippets of a community are rich as they stand. Tod Browning did run away with the circus when he was young and throughout there are many aspects to the film that couldn't be seen in anyway but heartening. A community where everyone helped each other, married and had kids as the human skeleton and the bearded lady do in one scene, and whilst the film is fictitious the normalisation of everyone's lives and letting actual sideshow attractions act is a huge virtue. The rawness of amateur performers is matched by the charisma of everyone, from Schlitzie the pinhead (actually a man playing a woman) to the already mentioned Prince Randian, who only gets one moment but shines just from showing how you don't need limbs to light a cigarette. That the film was cut down to only around an hour does mean a lot was probably lost that would've been exceptional to see, but what snippets remain are utterly inspiring and subversive in seeing these people be filmed having meals and merely gossiping between themselves. This is where even someone like myself with a mental disability can embrace this film more beyond a love of the movie, where not only is there solidarity between the sideshow, but also how it shows how ordinary they are even if their lives travelling could've been exciting and full of gossip. The film's in the same vein of the Universal horror movies of the thirties that it was meant to capitalise on, a lurid carnival drama also in the vein of the decade later Nightmare Alley (1947) where deceit and murder plots bubble up. Barring a finale where people crawl in the mud during a rainstorm with knifes ready, the horror movie moment, this exists in-between dramas as a pot-boiler which straddles the line between respectability and being offensive. The film for me is the former, but it still gladly provokes taboos. Just before the Hays Code, which was already created, finally clamped down on what it perceived to be morally offensive material, you had films in the early thirties which still stand out for how brazen and quite progressive they still are. Hans is openly wooing Cleopatra, hinting of an eroticism that is still not tackled in cinema a great deal, and more openly subversive is to be found the subplot with real life Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton playing sisters who are planning to marry their respective suitors, one of the funniest parts of the film for imagining how the arguments with the sister-in-law is going to turn out like but also hinting at more when both sisters can feel the sensations of the other.
You can easily connect Freaks, even though it was and always will have meant to be a horror movie to scare, to the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier's The Idiots (1998) and Ulrich Seidl, all of which have prodded the taboos of either (or both) physical and mental disability, Freaks by possible coincidence being an ancestor of them in disregarding the safety bubble used around the subject. Whilst no way near as explicit as those films, and not in their cult/art cinema environment, this still does everything those examples do - showing the disabled as human beings, far from perfect, passionate and even having sexual desire. This doesn't detract from Freaks being a fun film, with a proto-Tales From The Crypt twist that's nasty, but the humanity is still worth relishing too.
The one flaw with Freaks that I've finally overcome, but must be bared in mind, is that as an early thirties movie, it had to grapple with the introduction of sound and how films would now have to be made, visible in its basic cinematic structure. Browning was said never to be comfortable with sound - Dracula (1931) is an utterly sluggish and misshapen creation even with Bela Lugosi - and Freaks is a quietly put together work as a result of this. The content is what Freaks succeeds though, not elaborate technique you can find in another great film like Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). This was why it took a while for me to fully embrace Freaks over all these years, superficiality no longer a bias.
Abstract Spectrum: None
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
The term "grotesque" could've been used but for me that would be utterly offensive to the people in the film. There should be a distancing of that word away from connotations of physical deformity and disability by itself barring the extreme realms of body horror and its fictitious exaggerations. Grotesque for me should represent exaggeration and transgressive material like taboo sexuality or the worst in mankind's behaviour. I could use the word for if I cover an Ulrich Seidl film. Another work based around a carnival "freakshow", the notorious anime Midori (1992), could also qualify for the word as would Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), a film banned in its home country exactly for the concerns of it being offensive to the disabled but firmly entrenched in a truly strange reality instead.
Aside from this, Freaks isn't a weird film at all. Barring having real sideshow performers play themselves rather than using practical effects, nothing is unconventional from other movies. Nothing is abstract and there is no cinematic techniques which effect the content. Having the performers be real sideshow attractions is confrontational, causing people to react and if the legend is true it caused a violent reaction at its original premier. The rest of the film is a melodrama with lots of dialogue, mostly if not all shot statically without anything to baffle. Now if what I've heard is true about Tod Browning's silent films, where dialogue wasn't an issue, films like The Unknown (1927) which made his name with Lon Chaney could be awesome and utterly strange too.
This was and still is a unique film, still utterly provocative to a modern audience, and despite its technical limitations, the boldness of the premise is still strong. It could be seen as sad, it would still be shocking, but firmly on the side of the titular characters, it champions them as much as it would offend others. This is also a film which doesn't fall into the annoying convention of the normal defeating the outsider evil. Here instead it's the outsiders who are the good people and the apparently normal people are evil, a simple idea far and away more relevant and more entertaining now in a fun film than most horror movies that do the opposite.