Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on February 20, 1932
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry & Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy & Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Johnny Eck, Prince Randian, Frances O’Connor, Koo Koo
One year after director Tod Browning hit paydirt with the Bela Lugosi vampire classic Dracula, he presented this little gem to unsuspecting audiences, a landmark film that was equal parts mesmerizing and disturbing, and delivered everything I’d heard and expected it would in its short 64-minute run time. This tale of betrayal and revenge among circus performers and a group of sideshow freaks—a bearded woman, a trio of microcephalic pinheads, conjoined twins, and a snake man with no arms or legs, to name just a few—was a failure when first released, and basically killed the career of Browning, who never recovered from the backlash and controversy which surrounded the film.
Thankfully, the film was rediscovered in the 1960s and gained the respect and appreciation of modern-day audiences that it deserved, and it remains today a fascinating piece of cinema storytelling, as a circus strongman and a female trapeze artist plot to steal the inheritance of a lovestruck midget, and soon face the wrath of the midget’s none-too-happy kindred. This leads to one of the most brutally shocking images I’ve ever seen in film…and if this shocked me today, I can only imagine how it affected moviegoers eighty years ago.
Browning was no stranger to horror films, having directed Lon Chaney in a handful of silents during the late 1920s, but what was amazing about Freaks was how Browning suckered you in with the pretense of horror—introducing us to these circus performers and their deformities, and making us feel repulsed by what we saw—then guiding you away from the ‘freak’ aspects of the characters, instead having you concentrate on their personalities and their stories, and the behind-the-scenes rituals of carnival life: the interactions, the friendships, the romances, and of course the rifts that formed between those with disfigurements and those without.
Soon, Browning had you sympathizing with the freaks and finding fault with their ‘normal’ counterparts (save for the friendly clown Phroso and the beautiful, kind-hearted Venus, two characters caught in the middle whom I gravitated towards as the story progressed); this formed the crux that led you to the climactic and terror-filled circus wagon wreck, where its darkly-themed conclusion played out. Actually, this wrap-up could’ve been a lot worse: two scenes that showed a vicious castration and mutilation were excised shortly after negative test screenings, and are now considered lost.
As for its subject matter and ‘behind the curtain’ interactions, there were some faint parallels to another circus-themed film released years later, the noir-like Nightmare Alley, but for the most part Freaks remains a one-of-a-kind wonder, a dramatic, fascinating, and at times good-natured wolf in horror clothing that catches you off-guard with its mainstream framework and uncompromising tone. (8/10)