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Don't let people convince you that "Freaks" is a horror movie, because
it isn't. It's actually a quite sad and sympathetic look at the way
abnormalities were treated in the early part of the 20th century, and
has direct parallels to the obsession with physical perfection causing
eating disorders today. Tod Browning of course asks us to consider who
are the bigger freaks: those with deformed bodies or those with
deformed souls? The two "normal" people who are out to cheat and steal
are monstrous, whereas the freaks are quite likable and charming. The
ending is disturbing to be sure, but it's hard to condemn the freaks
for acts that seem largely justified.
Is it a coincidence that in several shots showing Cleopatra reclining on a sofa, she appears to be deformed herself (in one shot it looks as if she has no legs). Has anybody else noticed this? "Freaks" was obviously way ahead of its time. There's a very interesting documentary on the DVD about its reception in 1932; it bombed and pretty much ruined Browning's career. Thank God that the general public is not allowed to be the final arbiter of a film's value. Think how many priceless films we would have lost by now if that were the case.
I really dig 1930s horror movies. There's just something special about them that can never be recreated. A lot of it has to do with the talkies being new territory, many of the directors adapting German Expressionist techniques to Hollywood melodrama, and the freedom allowed before the Hayes Code really kicked in. Movies like 'Dracula', 'Frankenstein', 'Bride Of Frankenstein', 'Island Of Lost Souls', 'The Invisible Man' and 'White Zombie' are horror classics which still impress today. I wonder whether anyone will be watching the lame horror movies of today in seventy years for any other reason than some cheap laughs? Todd Browning made the transition from silent movies and directed the hugely successful 'Dracula' in 1931. It was a sensation and made Bela Lugosi a horror icon. Browning could pretty much do anything he chose after that. He chose to do 'Freaks'. Great for us as, not so great for him. The movie was universally reviled and even banned in some countries and his career never fully recovered. But 'Freaks' is an extraordinary movie with a lot of heart. It has faults, sure - some corny acting at times, and not so great production values - but it really doesn't matter. I don't know anyone who's seen it who hasn't been deeply affected by it. The reason the movie caused such a negative reaction back in the 1930s was because it used real circus performers including Zip the Pinhead and Radian "The Living Torso". Many people found this to be distasteful and exploitative, but the performers seemed to be glad to get the opportunity to work, and the whole crux of the movie is that the "freaks" are more decent than the "normal" Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) , the trapeze artist who marries little person Hans (Harry Earls) for his money. 'Freaks' is still a very powerful and unique movie. It has inspired many creative people over the years from the Surrealists to The Ramones to Jodorowsky to David Lynch. 'Freaks' comes with my highest recommendation!
Part fictional portrait of a group of circus sideshow performers and
part tragic soap opera about their various and complicated
relationships, the main story has a midget, Hans (Harry Earles),
falling in love with the Amazonian trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga
Baclanova), who feigns affection for him--at first to taunt him and
later to use him.
Freaks isn't really a horror film, although the horror boom that began in 1931 precipitated Freaks entering production. The script developed out of an earlier one named "Spurs" that had been in MGM's possession since the late 1920s. The success of Universal's horror films of 1931 (Dracula and Frankenstein) had studios scrambling to cash in on the trend. Horror films weren't new, of course, but repeated commercial success of horror films released in quick succession was. A number of factors contributed to the phenomenon, including the Great Depression, the lingering cultural impact from World War I, and the advent of sound films. So even though Freaks wasn't exactly horror, and the protagonists weren't exactly monsters, it was close enough. In the early 1930s, the public had not yet been overexposed to media-sensationalized differences in human appearances and behavior. The effect of the film then, in conjunction with memories of real life horrors, including those of war-mangled veterans, offered the emotional reaction that producers and studios are often seeking from horror films.
But Freaks is really part tragic drama, part character study, and in many ways it is almost a documentary. The modern attraction to the film comes from a few sources. One, the "gawking effect", or the simple fact of watching the freaks in action. Sideshows are an unfortunately dying phenomenon, if they're not already dead (many would say they are), largely because of a combination of medical advances, which often "cure" the physical differences that would have made "victims" sideshow candidates, and political correctness, which mistakenly sees sideshows as negatively exploitative. It's fascinating watching the different kinds of people in the film and their behavior, including not only their social interactions, but how some of them manage to just get around and perform everyday activities such as eating, lighting a cigarette, and so on. This kind of material takes up at least half of the film's short running time (64 minutes; initially it ran closer to 90 minutes, but 26 minutes of cuts were made (and are now apparently lost) to appease the New York State censor board).
Two, this was a lost film, figuratively and almost literally, for quite some time. MGM wanted nothing to do with it. For a while, it had been playing the "roadshow" circuit in different cuts, under different titles, such as "Nature's Mistakes". The film had been banned in many areas, and at least technically is still banned in some. It eventually appeared on VHS in the 1980s, but until the recent DVD release, it has never been very easy to find in most rental or retail outlets.
Three, the most common modern reading of the film--and this was also part of director Tod Browning's intention in making Freaks, even if the average audience member didn't see it this way at first, has it as a Nightbreed (1990)-like turning of the dramatic tables, where the extremely alienated "monsters" are the sympathetic protagonists and the ostensibly "normal" humans turn out to be the real monsters. For those who like films best where they can identify in some emotional way with the characters, Freaks is particularly attractive to anyone who feels alienated or strongly different, even looked down upon, by "normal" society. At various times, and by various people, Freaks has been read as everything from purely exploitative schlock to a socialist parable to a film imbued with odd commentary, metaphors and subtexts about male-female couplings and Oedipal complexes.
Freaks isn't a great film in terms of the usual criteria, such as storytelling, exquisite performances, and so on, but it's appropriate that it wouldn't be a masterpiece per the normal criteria--it's not about normal people. The film is certainly valuable as a creative, almost experimental artwork, not to mention as a more or less permanent record of the decayed and almost abandoned artform of sideshows. It's not surprising that not every cast member is an incredible actor--for many roles, there was only one person available who could have fulfilled the character in a particular way, making the stilted delivery of dialogue more excusable. In any event, this is an important film historically, and a joy to watch.
A forest glade somewhere in Europe. A warm, sunny day with
children playing on the grass. But the camera moves closer
reveals that something is terribly wrong. For these are
children, but tragically misshapen human beings. Pinheads.
Dwarfs. A young man with only half a body. A man without
arms or legs. These are the Freaks.
In 1932, director Tod Browning, fresh from his success with DRACULA, was instructed by Irving Thalberg to top FRANKENSTEIN. He succeeded. The resulting film was considered so ghastly that it was banned in Britain for 30 years. It is the strangest film MGM ever released.
Browning wanted to tell a tale of love, greed & revenge set in a circus, most particularly in the sideshow of human anomalies. He scoured Europe & America for the perfect cast. He got them: Violet & Daisy Hilton, the celebrated Siamese twins; dwarf brother & sister Harry & Daisy Earles; Johnny Eck the Half Boy (a good actor, he will remain in your mind a long time); the tragic Josephine Joseph, a hermaphrodite; as well as a human skeleton, armless girls and the female pinheads, among others.
While the plot is exploitive & the title tasteless, these people show us glimpses of their hearts, some of the agony of their condition and make us wonder, `What if I'd been born as one of them?'
The rest of the cast is made up of MGM stock players Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Edward Brophy, Olga Baclanova and the screen's champion stutterer Roscoe Ates.
The plot is simple. A beautiful trapeze artist marries a dwarf for his money, then plots his murder with her lover, the circus strong man. The subsequent action is both horrifying & strangely satisfying. Various scenes - the Freaks' Banquet, the chase through the storm - are among the most bizarre ever filmed. You won't soon forget the time you spend with the FREAKS.
`Freaks' is a totally unique and superb film by Tod Browning. He made
himself legendary one year before this came out in 1931 with the
all-time horror classic `Dracula'. This film, however, is something
completely different and it nearly cost Browning his career. Since Browning
had the courage to cast actual deformed actors, the words distasteful' and
exploitative' were automatically attached to his masterpiece and it
remained banned in many countries for too many years. Very unjustified, of
course because throughout the whole film, you NEVER feel like a voyeur and
neither is the misery of these unfortunate people overly exposed. On the
contrary, I'd say
you can't but get deeply affected by these circus freaks.
Especially in the 30's, when the people didn't know much about physical
anomalies and feared the unknown, I dare to say Tod Browning's `Freaks'
could have been an essential social portrait. And keep in mind that
Browning's main moral is that the `freaks' show a lot more solidarity and
honesty than the `normal' people whose every motivation is driven by greed
The plot of this purely gold film is set in a traveling circus in which the freaks and normally formed people work together. The beautiful trapeze artist and her strongman lover plot a cowardly plan and she uses her beauty to seduce the rich midget named Hans (a brilliant Harry Earless who also starred in Browning's `The Unholy Tree'). When the greedy couple openly insults the group spirit of the freaks and publicly humiliates Hans, an eerie act of vengeance is thought up. This film is over 70 years old and it'll still unquestionably shock and amaze you. To me, it's just perfect. An outstanding mixture of warm-hearted characters, great dialogue and tension. The climax, in which the freaks seal the portentous fate of their enemies, is an immortal piece of pure terror! `Freaks' is one of the most dazzling classics ever made and must be seen by anybody who ever showed any interest in cinema.
Those that have seen either 1930's gangster film, "The Public Enemy" or
"Little Caesar" will be familiar with the opening scrawl of the amazing
film, "Freaks." In the 1930's it seemed as though the filmmakers had to
set up the audience or apologize, in a way, for what they were about to
see. The opening, before the title card, explains how "freaks" or human
oddities have been treated by society. It tells how such deformed
people were shunned from society, but, how they have normal thoughts
and feelings just like the rest of us. This truly is the power of this
truly moving, funny, very strange, and ultimately frightening film from
the "Dark Carnival" mind of director Tod Browning...
No reason to do a summary here, that ruins the experience for new audiences to discover on their own and the rest of the reviewers have all ready done a stellar job, I'm sure, of giving plot synopsis.
Let's say that the average viewer will be stunned at first by the fact that real deformed dwarfs, midgets,siamese twins, and other "oddities" were the actors in this film. And that, in itself, lends the film its mysterious power and casts its spell on the viewer as much now in 2004 as I'm sure it did in the 30's and upon its rediscovery in the 1960's.
The tone of this film varies throughout. At it's center really are several relationships: Hans and his fiancée; Hans and the "Big" Lady, Cleopatra; Frozo the Clown and Venus; Hercules the strong man and Cleopatra, and of course the "Freaks" vs. Hercules and Cleopatra and the special code of the Freaks.
There are several lame 1930's jokes an example: "I thinks she likes you, b-b-b-but h-he don't!" stutters a clown in the circus when the half male/female character walks by Hercules and stops to take a gander. It's a strange, perverse joke and an example of what you're in for with this movie.
The power of the film is within the freaks themselves. We are invited to gawk, stare, but, ultimately sympathize with them. We want to see anyone who threatens them get their comeuppance and boy do they ever get that!
The freak that will freak you out the most: The Living Torso, Radian.
You'll love Frozo and Venus and pull for them throughout.
You'll root for Hans and Frida.
You'll enjoy Rosco the clown's humorous performance.
You'll be truly disturbed by the classic; uber-horror scene of the freaks crawling with knives in the mud in the rain-storm revenge sequence toward the end. Some of the most classic images in all of film not just horror.
I love it when Hans calls other "big" people in the circus who make him angry : "Swine!" He rules.
When the title card: THE WEDDING FEAST comes up you too will be truly FREAKED out! I love this movie and it has quickly become one of my favorites of all time right along-side 1930's classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If there ever was a time when film making could get away with producing
movies that bordered on blatantly exploitative, the pre-Code 1930s were
it. Tod Browning, director of Dracula, went one definitive step further
and effectively killed his own career when he took the reigns of
directing FREAKS, a project that was turned down by Myrna Loy when
offered the lead since she deemed it to be too offensive as it was.
She may have been right, but nowadays, FREAKS stands as one of the shortest yet most effective horror movies of all time due to its chilling climactic sequence. The plot's plausibility can be in itself questioned -- where can a circus performer who's a midget have all the money he is said to have in the film is anyone's guess -- but since this is a horror story, and an excellent one, suspension of disbelief allows one to sort of accept what's being explained to us.
Hans (Harry Earles), the little performer at the center of this story, rejects equally little person Frieda (Daisy Earles), loves Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a platinum blonde trapeze artist, herself involved with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Eventually, through a series of events, Cleopatra marries Hans for money, but she goes out of her way to humiliate him at the wedding reception, horrified as the other circus "freaks" chant "Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, we will make you one of us." Oh, how dead-serious they are in their eerie chant.
When the band of freaks find out she has been poisoning Hans to get his money and that her strongman lover has raped Venus (Leila Hyams), another performer who's always been good to them, they exact a horrific revenge against the both of them, and the last 10 minutes of FREAKS are as gruesome as terrifying.
This film was initially received with so much repulsion from audiences that MGM virtually disowned the film. Only until much later has it been re-discovered as a horror classic, and again, while some of the plot elements don't hold water today, the basic story of the abused and disabled taking charge of their own lives and punishing their abusers stands on its own today. That actual disabled people were used as actors only makes it more daring and adds to both the creepiness of the movie's feel and enhances their final moment on screen and only enhances the final ironic reel.
The subject of human disability is still a taboo subject in Cinema, even
over 70 years since this film's release.
It's difficult to imagine what impact this film would have had in the 1930's, but as it still has the ability to shock ( through the images of bodily deformity ) I can understand why many shunned and disowned this work, and why it totally ruined Todd Browning's film career.
The basic premise - that beauty is more than skin deep - can appear to be wielded with a sledgehammer, but perhaps the contemporary audience needed to be hit harder in order to make them understand the point.
The film is short ( due to enforced cuts ), and at times can move rather slowly and can appear rather 'stagey' which is a trait of many films from the 20's / 30's.
But don't let that put you off. The plot is simple, but it's the telling of the story rather than the story itself that is important. And you really do need to remind yourself that these are real people - not actors - and this was the live they led.
I rate it 9 outa 10 because they really don't make them like this any more.
"Freaks" is one of the most controversial horror films from the 30's,mainly because director Tod Browning hired as the actors real sideshow freaks.It does have a rather unsettling effect,but I think that really does work for the film.Browning builds up a great amount of suspense with the good use of locations,story and lots of atmosphere.The ending,where we see freaks crawling in the mud,is pretty creepy.Anyway check this one out-it's worth watching.
It is ironic how director Tod Browning followed up "Dracula"--a horror film with painterly set design and a distinct atmosphere of unease--with a horror film more grounded in reality. Whereas the sets in "Dracula" were as skillfully rendered as the most elaborate of tapestries, the abstraction of "Freaks" comes from the title characters, who are at once hideous, wonderful, and all too human. Browning doesn't present these characters--who were actual sideshow performers--in an exploitative manner (though the long disclaimer that precedes the film is a definite reflection of his concern), but instead touches on a humility, modesty, and altruism that makes them as capable of expressing joy, sorrow, and vengeance as any 'normal' human being. And that's the overriding moral of "Freaks," wherein busty trapeze artist Cleopatra marries sensitive midget Hans only so she and her lunkheaded, strongman lover can make off with his inheritance. Granted, this plot has since become cliché, but to apply it to sideshow performers who are truly in their element 'under the big top' is something of a masterstroke...as it makes the 'normals' seem that much more out-of-place and unwelcome. (A complaint: as some of the dialog is difficult to decipher, it seems that the sound quality was either poorly recorded at the time or when it was transferred to video.)
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