FREAKS - DVD review

...the movie was never meant to be a horror film; it was meant to be a character study and morality play.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Offend one, and you offend them all!"

Among the most controversial movies ever made, Tod Browning's 1932 production, "Freaks," was censored and trimmed almost everywhere it played, then outright banned in some cities, states, and countries, and finally withdrawn from circulation before a year was out. It wasn't rediscovered by the public until the 1960s, but it continues to this day to remain a subject for debate.

Is it a compassionate plea for love and understanding among all people, or is it merely an exploitation of human abnormality? The movie's optional prologue attempts to persuade us along the former lines, but it's not hard to see why even some of the performers in the picture later disowned it.

The movie is based on a short story by Tod Robbins called "Spurs" and directed by Tod Browning. A lot of Tod's here. Browning had been a successful silent filmmaker, directing Lon Chaney, Sr., in things like "The Unholy Three" and "London After Midnight," and he made a successful transition into talkies directing Bela Lugosi in the original, 1931 "Dracula." But after "Freaks" Browning's career went downhill fast, nobody wanting to hire him anymore, and he stepped aside in 1936 to spend the next quarter of a century in quiet retirement until his death in 1962.

The story of "Freaks" follows the affairs of a group of traveling European circus sideshow performers around the turn of the century. I say "affairs" because it appears that almost everyone in the show is sleeping with one another. This was not, however, an uncommon occurrence amongst circus people in those days, as they often dated and married within their own company. However, in this case one of the participants in a love triangle is a little person, Hans (Harry Earles), a midget or dwarf as he is alternately called in the movie, who falls in love with a normal-sized trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). At first Cleo and her boyfriend, the strong man Hercules (Henry Victor), simply laugh at the little fellow, but when they find out he has inherited a fortune, they plot to take it away from him. Cleo marries Hans and then attempts to poison him to get his money. But the plot is foiled, and Hans and his buddies exact a terrible revenge.

The appeal, or repulsion, of "Freaks" resides in three areas: It's characters, its theme, and its ending. Let's examine them one at a time.

The circus personnel are divided into three camps: The normal-sized performers, the abnormal-sized performers, and the workers. It's mainly the first two groups we want to look at. Among the normal-sized performers are Phrosa, the clown, played by a wisecracking Wallace Ford, a handsome leading man who played a lot of happy-go-lucky types in early movies. He is among the few normal-sized performers in the circus who treats everyone else in the troupe, normal or odd in appearance, as equals. Then there's Venus, the beautiful young animal trainer played by Leila Hyams, who has a subplot romance with Phrosa. They're the good guys among the normal-sized folk. On the other side of the normal-sized fence are Cleopatra and her boyfriend Hercules, who are greedy, intolerant bigots. They and many of the normal-appearing circus stagehands and roustabouts are not above constantly laughing at and ridiculing the more-different show people around them.

Most important, however, and the cause for so much concern about the movie, are the "freaks" as they are called in circus parlance. The word "freak" conjures up for most of us negative feelings with prejudicial connotations, a politically incorrect term to say the least. We prefer today to think of people out of the ordinary in size or shape as simply being "different" but in no way inferior. Not so with old-fashioned circuses. According to the documentary accompanying the disc, the term "freaks" was freely used by the abnormal performers themselves, who displayed their abnormalities for profit to sightseers eager to view what they considered the grotesque mistakes of Nature. Most of these unusual people willingly joined circuses and made profitable livings from their physical limitations. Still and all, in a movie, up there on the big screen, the public didn't buy it. Moviegoers and critics alike called the film exploitative and condemned it as scandalous. Somehow, it was all right to view freaks in a carnival sideshow but not in a movie house where audiences could go beyond their physical appearance and into their personal lives. Hypocrisy never dies.

Anyway, Browning wanted his film to be as authentic as possible and demanded the studio hire the best possible freaks from the best sideshows in the world to be in his movie. Among the stars are Harry and Daisy Earles, a brother and sister from a celebrated family of little people; the famous Hilton sisters, Violet and Daisy, conjoined, or Siamese, twins; Zip and Pip and Schlitze, microcephalics or "pinheads" as they are known in the trade; plus various others, like the human skeleton; the human worm; armless, legless people; little people; people with deformed heads; a hermaphrodite; a bearded lady; a bird lady; anything that would attract attention.

The movie's theme: That all people, no matter their size or mental condition, are equals as human beings and worthy of equivalent dignity and respect. The "freaks," poses Browning, are not the abnormally sized people in the movie but the evil people of the world who commit wicked deeds against their fellows. Cleopatra and Hercules are the freaks, not the dwarfs or pinheads or bearded ladies, who are, in fact, depicted in the movie as loving, caring, and kind, a part of a well-knit family. When Cleo marries Hans, his family of fellow abnormally sized persons welcomes her with open arms as one their own, a thought that repulses and infuriates her. Cleo screams at them at the wedding feast, "Freaks! Get out!"

The movie's reissue was preceded by the following words of apology and warning: "With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot), we present the most startling horror story of the abnormal and the unwanted."

But movie audiences ignored the film's plea for tolerance and its message of equality and could not get over the appearance of so many unusual, misshapen beings. Audiences also could not overcome the movie's ending, because the story's unusual people, while being as loving, caring, and kind as anyone else in the world, are also shown to be subject to the same angers and temptations as everyone else, and the vengeance they inflict would not soon be forgotten by moviegoers. The movie's climax continues to shock, even by modern standards.

Despite the film's prologue warning that "Freaks" was a "startling horror story," the movie was never meant to be a horror film; it was meant to be a character study and morality play. The "horror" lay in the behavior of the normal people toward their unusual and unfortunate brethren, but the movie was seen as traditional horror by most audiences, and these audiences felt that the studio, MGM, and director Browning had clearly overstepped the bounds of decency by portraying such "horrible" sights on the screen. Over a half an hour of the film was cut before its first release, and further cuts were made in various places around the world where it was shown.

The Warner Bros. studios, now the owner of the film, have restored most of what is left, even providing three alternative endings among the disc's extras. Still, the movie is barely over an hour long, hardly enough time to develop much more than a cursory look at any of the story's many characters. And the acting of the day is rather stilted, much of it from players who had never been in any movie before, let alone a talking movie. So as pure filmmaking, "Freaks" is perhaps deficient in story, character, and design. But it is a cult classic, and make no mistake about it. Love it or hate it, it is the kind of film that will definitely make an impression on you.

For so old a print, the one Warner Bros. found to transfer to disc was in excellent condition. There are a few minor specks and scratches here and there in this old Academy Ratio 1.33:1 (from 1.37:1) picture, but that's to be expected. Black-and-white contrasts are strongly accentuated, making the image fairly easy on the eyes, but ultimate definition and object delineation suffer slightly from being a bit fuzzy and blurry.

The 1.0 monaural sound, reproduced through Dolby Digital processing, is probably as good as it can be without its being completely altered and upgraded. The dynamic response and frequency range are limited, as would be expected, the balance is somewhat bright, and there is a touch of background noise. But the midrange, though constricted and a touch nasal, is quite clear.

The extras on the disc do a commendable job helping a viewer to understand the pros and cons of the film. The first bonus is an audio commentary by David J. Skal, author of "Dark Carnival: The Secret World Of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master Of The Macabre." Skal is unusually informative, reeling off a continuous string of background titbits for the movie's entire running time. Complementing his remarks is an all-new, sixty-three minute, Warner Bros. documentary on the subject, "Freaks: Sideshow Cinema," narrated again by Mr. Skal and ably assisted by several other film and sideshow historians and performers. This documentary tells us not only about the production but provides a background on each of the actors in the show. Then, there's the "Special Message Prologue" that was added for theatrical reissue; three alternate endings with commentary; and twenty-one scene selections. English is the only spoken language offered, but there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles. No chapter insert came with my package.

Parting Thoughts:
As one of the commentators in the documentary points out, "Freaks" is little more than "a soap opera set in a sideshow," yet it manages in a little more than an hour to charm some audiences and incense others. For that reason alone, it may be a curiosity for the movie lover. I mean, how many movies these days does one even think about ten minutes later? "Freaks" is a bona-fide cult classic that no matter how you take it, you never forget it.


Film Value