Film director Tod Browning is probably best known for helming the 1931 version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, which may still be the most famous of all the different incarnations of the good Count. But his 1932 film Freaks is Browning’s masterpiece and it’s just as disturbing now as it was when it was first released.
Freaks tells the story of kind-hearted sideshow midget Hans (Harry Earles) who has just inherited a great deal of money. This draws the attention of the “normal” and beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). The two marry and as Hans’ wife, Cleopatra is now reluctantly embraced by the “freak” community as one of its own. But Cleopatra is secretly having an affair with “normal” circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and the two plot to poison and kill Hans so they can get his money. Once the freaks learn of this plan, they rush into action on one dark, stormy night to teach Cleopatra and Hercules a lesson that…well, you just have to see it to believe it.
What lends Freaks its authenticity was director Browning’s insistence on using people with real “deformities” to play the freaks. So there were no actors in special effects make-up populating the cast. Nope, in this film what you saw was what you got. So when you see a scene such as the one where the human torso takes out and lights his cigarette using only his tongue—that’s all real.
If Freaks still has the power to disturb today, back in 1932, it was unprecedented. After disastrous test screenings (one pregnant women threatened to sue claiming the movie had caused her to miscarry), MGM Studios, which had made the movie, trimmed the film against the director’s wishes, removing many of the “offending” scenes including the sequence where the freaks castrate Hercules.
But that wasn’t enough to salvage the situation. The film was condemned upon its release and bombed at the box office, effectively ending Browning’s promising Hollywood career. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Freaks was re-discovered on the midnight film circuit, becoming a bona fide cult classic by the 1970s and profoundly influencing filmmakers like David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and David Cronenberg (The Fly).
I don’t think it was a coincidence that Freaks was re-discovered when it was. Like many, I first checked out the movie because I had heard how…well, freaky it was, but I quickly realized that what gives the film its heart and has made it endure is the empathy Browning creates for the freaks. As disturbing and frightening as they may be, they are the honorable and kind ones while the normals are the true monsters and freaks. That’s a message that must have resonated with audiences during the late 60s and 70s when the counterculture was questioning the status quo.
And that’s a message that continues to resonate today when it feels like persecuting those who are different from the “norm” is still as prevalent as it ever was. For that and other reasons, Freaks is still a vibrant and contemporary work. If you’re looking for something appropriate to watch this Halloween besides the usual suspects, check it out.
And long live the Freaks!