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Don't Be Fooled
evanston_dad22 July 2005
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.

Grade: A
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'Freaks' is an extraordinary movie with a lot of heart.
Infofreak20 May 2004
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!
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Visit This Sideshow at Your Peril
Ron Oliver25 January 2000
A forest glade somewhere in Europe. A warm, sunny day with children playing on the grass. But the camera moves closer and reveals that something is terribly wrong. For these are not 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.
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Very good relatively avant-garde film
BrandtSponseller5 March 2005
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.
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"Living, Breathing Monstrosities.."
Tom_Powers309 August 2004
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.
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*Gasp* this movie is brilliant!!
Coventry20 August 2004
`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 and power.

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.
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Repulsive. Offensive. Brilliant.
nycritic9 May 2005
Warning: 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.
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Disturbing & Thought Provoking
Iron Horse9 October 2003
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.
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Great horror classic from early 30's.
HumanoidOfFlesh7 June 2001
"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.
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Holdjerhorses14 November 2005
Over the years, I've seen "Freaks" perhaps four times – all in theatres and on cinema screens in revivals. I've never seen it on TV, though I imagine it's been shown there.

It's fascinating and hypnotically watchable still, not always for the right reasons. Yes, it's exploitive of the "freaks." Yet given their opportunities in 1932, when they were either confined in institutions or exhibited in sideshows all over the world, the film gives them a curious dignity simply by offering them a one-time appearance in a Hollywood film that demanded more of them (some of them) than mere sideshow antics. The script, of course, also gives them "dignity" of a kind, at least relative to the prejudices of the times (i.e., "Don't betray the freaks or they'll turn on you, cut you up, and make you one of them.").

That the film was shocking in its day, and often banned, says far more about audiences of the '30s than the actual film. The only truly powerful sequence is the brilliant "storm" sequence that climaxes "Freaks." Emotionally, it is perfectly positioned in the film's structure: audiences inwardly understand and root for the "freaks" creeping and slithering through the mud beneath the wagon wheels to exact their revenge . . . while simultaneously being frightened of them and of what's to come. A brilliant and inspired sequence that deserves its legendary status.

The remainder of "Freaks," though entirely watchable, is not always watchable for the right reasons, as mentioned.

Namely the dialogue and the acting. The structure is fine. But many of the lines are stilted and phony, even for films of that era. None of the "freaks" were trained actors. Such careers simply didn't exist in those days. Midget Daisy Earles (as Frieda) does perhaps the best job. Yet even she has no notion (nor experience) of how to sustain a character arc. Her brother, Harry Earles (as Hans), has tremendous vitality in his role, but no idea how to deliver these lines convincingly. Yet he's a good instinctive actor, as witness his silent moments in the film. Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra certainly holds the screen, and is the "best" actor in the cast. Hers must have been a difficult task – playing a completely despicable circus diva with no redeeming value whatsoever. Henry Victor as Hercules? Mediocre.

Tod Browning's VISION for this film was / is breathtaking. "Contrast real physical mutants with 'normal' people, and get the audience to identify with the 'freaks.' Then take them through a murderous, mutilating, emotionally wrenching climax." That's a challenge in 2005, much less 73 years ago.

Browning's decision to use real "freaks" as opposed to made-up actors is noble and brave and true. But so intense were the prejudices of the day that that single decision affected every decision that followed. No "name" actor would agree to appear in the cast, citing "disgust" and worse. Five writers are credited on IMDb with the script – always a bad sign. None of the "freaks" had any real acting training or careers as actors. Much of the cast were amateurs, in other words, and it shows.

Whatever tensions are generated by the story's structure dissipate whenever the lead midgets are on screen. Though Daisy Earles has some intermittent moments of effectiveness, Harry Earles does not. He almost sounds as if he's delivering his lines phonetically.

Absent good actors in the lead roles (Baclanova overacts continually, but it works in context with her character), I've often wondered what "Freaks" might have been as a silent film.

The two great set-pieces (the wedding sequence and the "storm" climax) are amazing – for entirely different reasons.

At the wedding, the "freaks" are obviously having a grand time "acting" for Hollywood's cameras, while Baclanova (convincingly) goes over the top. The sequence is disturbing on more than one level. First, it's impossible to believe that silly "One of us!" chant. Yet it's disturbing at the same time it's phony. Possibly it was accepted as "real" in 1932, but I doubt it. Second, you have an actress who was reportedly sweet and kind to her co-stars, having to behave abominably with them on camera. How did Browning explain all this to some of his mentally child-like "freaks?" Visually, the wedding sequence is nothing out of the ordinary. Emotionally, it is wrenching – both within the story structure and outside the fiction: this and several other scenes that are blatantly exploitive beg the question, "How were these people treated? Did they understand what was going on?"

From all reports, the "freaks" were treated with respect and appreciation.

The "storm" climax, on the other hand, is simply stunning cinema. Silent, except for the deafening thunderstorm, it is brilliantly lit, shot and edited. It is also emotionally jolting. Here, finally, the "freaks" we have identified and empathized with are reduced to monstrous "things" snaking through mud puddles in the dark of night. They're on their way to do God-Knows-What to the "normals." But by now, the audience has realized that the "normals" are really the "freaks," and vice versa.

That's an amazing level of dual-audience identification and sophistication for 1932 – or even today.

"Freaks" is a failed enterprise in many ways. But Tod Browning's VISION of it was so audacious that it continues to stir controversy even now.

The ending seems abrupt. Yet what other image could so immediately, efficiently, crystallize the themes of all that's gone before?
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hideously beautiful
Jonny_Numb18 September 2005
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 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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A Night At the Circus
telegonus12 August 2001
So much has been written about this film one is wary of writing about it, figuring that most everything that can be said about it has already been said, and that there's not much more to add. It has been praised and damned, and was so hated by the boss of the studio that produced it that he had his company's trademark removed from the credits and sold it to an independent distributor. It was banned in England for thirty years.

The movie's director, Tod Browning, was best known for a series of highly popular macabre melodramas he had made with silent picture star Lon Chaney in the twenties. Just prior to making Freaks he had made Dracula, with Bela Lugosi. As the result of the controversy surrounding Freaks his career was ruined. He was allowed to make a few more films, but none did well; and his career's momentum, which had been strong in the early thirties, was soon lost. For all intents and purposes Browning gambled his reputation on this one movie, and he lost, badly.

Freaks concerns life in a circus that features a particularly large side show of freaks: pinheads, a bearded lady, midgets, an armless and legless man, and so forth. The story revolves around the efforts of a beautiful 'normal' woman, known as Cleopatra, to woo and wed a midget she knows to be worth a good deal of money. This woman has a lover, Hercules, the circus strong man, and together they plot against the hapless little fellow, who is quite smitten with her. Cleopatra hates her tiny husband and plans to poison him for her inheritance. The midget becomes quite ill from a lethal drink she gives him; however, by this time the other freaks are onto her. As their little friend ails in bed they extract a terrible vengeance for what was done to their comrade.

The bare bones of the story make the film sound better than it is. By no means is Freaks a bad film, but it moves like molasses, and is for the most part badly acted. Its ideas are better than its images. This surely is not the fault of the freaks themselves, who are the best thing about the picture. Despite their appearance they are an engaging lot. In this respect the movie succeeds. We come to like the freaks and care what happens to them. The ideas behind the film are exciting to think about. Normal people are indeed often hateful; and the suffering and crippled souls among us seem far worthier. Beauty has a cruelty about it. But the vehicle that carries these and the other messages that Browning put forth is, sadly, inadequate, and not up to the task.

Yet I highly recommend this film. For all its faults it is, at its best, a powerful and original work. That it deals with the entertainment world cannot but raise the issue of the movie being perhaps a criticism of Hollywood and the studio system, which may also be why it was so despised within the industry. It is a guilty pleasure if ever there was one, but it is, in the end, more interesting to talk about and look back on than to actually experience.
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strengths outweigh major flaws
mukava99111 April 2007
Tod Browning's FREAKS is still haunting and unsettling after more than 75 years despite draconian edits, clumsy dialog, implausible and ultra-contrived situations, mostly amateurish acting and a deteriorated soundtrack (at least half the dialog is barely comprehensible) solely because of the human types on display. If a similar scenario (say, a group of non-freakish circus performers who gang up on a newly arrived gold-digger who upsets the camaraderie of their tribe) had been cast with "normal" human beings it would have come and gone with minor praise for some interesting cinematography.

The imagery harks back to the silent era. When an inter-title ("The Wedding Feast") appears one can't help wondering if this film might have worked better a few years earlier as a late-period silent with elaborate musical scoring and sound effects. The feast itself has been accurately described as "bizarre" by many viewers. A dwarf dances awkwardly on a banquet table to an audience of fellow freaks chanting "one of us, one of us!" as Cleopatra, the beautiful but heartless trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) gulps champagne and repeatedly bursts into explosive guffaws. The dialog is so crude and ridiculous one wonders if it wasn't improvised on the spot. Baclanova overacts shamelessly throughout this sequence.

Harry and Daisy Earles alternately move and embarrass us as a midget couple torn apart by Cleopatra's intrigues. Daisy manages to be heartbreakingly sincere but simultaneously wooden. The scene of Madame Tetrallini supervising the micro-cephalics ("pinheads") at a picnic in the forest is deeply touching. The "human torso" (Rardion) is perhaps the most mind-boggling to behold, like a plump, stocking-sheathed caterpillar with a human head stuck on.

Ultimately it's a story about humanity, bonding, comradeship. The fear comes from the uncomfortable empathy we experience at the sight of those born without legs or arms or fully developed brains or common gender characteristics. We imagine how we would feel if we too had been born that way. Through most of the film it is painful for us to gaze upon these individuals whose mere appearance is drama in itself. The melodramatic scenario that is imposed on them seems unnecessary. But the climax works, even if the coda with the Earles is stilted. I think this film encourages us to love or at least respect one another as humans. A very simple message which, appearing at the dawn of the Holocaust when people like the ones depicted here were routinely exterminated by the Nazis, takes on new meaning for the contemporary viewer.
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Great Movie
anonanon2224 November 2010
I watched this movie today and I was pleasantly surprised with it. I thought I was going to watch something exploiting actors with deficiencies, but it was more of a parable about human beings taking advantage of others. It features "freaks" in a circus, but we can see them as representation of everyday victims. People who are in disadvantage whether it is because of a physical disability, or because they are sensitive (the midget who falls in love with the trapezist), or because they lack a qualification, or because they are immigrants. We are all like the midget at one time or another. And there will always be beautiful trapezists around to screw us up if we don't watch out. Great movie.
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Freaking Good Movie
angry12720 November 2010
This movie is really a hidden masterpiece. Its hard to come across a movie with so much visual flair and production quality. This certainly is not a movie that could be made nowadays. In fact the prologue even predicts this. The real reason it could not be made today from a Hollywood studio is because of political correctness issues. This film would fail on all fronts if given a show trial by the MPAA.

Don't let that discourage you from the movie. The film has a very positive view towards the sideshow performers. They may be exploited in some sense and made to be fools. But, they are never treated with malice. And in the end, they come across as the good guys. A film like this doesn't try to cop out and give us a Snow White ending or plot. Almost everyone comes out at least a little dirty. Though some more dirty than others (apparently the original script had everyone coming out equally as bad).

The film does have one fatal flaw though, its only about an hour long. Many scenes seem terribly rushed and the plot seems to zoom by. This film would have developed at a more comfortable pace if it were 105 minutes. The film finishes with an amazing climax. This almost makes up for the short length.

Make sure to see this movie any way you can. Beg, steal, or borrow; its a film you are not likely to forget.
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Highly disturbing yet reveals much about human character
vovazhd20 October 2007
Freaks was a highly controversial film at the time of its creation, and its easy to see why. The casting of actual deformed people in a movie is an audacious decision. This can be seen in two ways: a real freak show (which is very, very disturbing) or an investigation into human character. I like to think that Tod Browning was striving for the bigger picture, but sometimes its not so obvious. The real-life freak show actors were definitely fascinating, but not much was done to create sympathy at the individual level. Rather, the freaks are represented as a varied group that works together to get things done. While this is effective in some ways, it didn't let the viewer surpass the barrier between seeing it on screen and understanding how it feels.

The subject matter is successful in bringing some deep messages about human character. The film is unique in that it does not try to hide anything. The freaks are not meant to be liked right away; although possibly pitied. But as the film progresses, the contrast between the "normal" people (Hercules and Cleopatra) with the collection of freaks builds up. When the marriage between Cleopatra and the midget occurs, the freaks are aware that its a plot. The is meant to define the freaks as the good guys, but the conclusion returns to a dark theme.

Freaks is one of those films that was fascinating but disturbing at the same time. It is unlikely that there will ever be a movie similar to Freaks. Tod Browning took a risk that impacted the rest of his career with this film. It is worth seeing because of the important subject and the real actors. Its one of those things that we cannot cover up or pretend doesn't exist.
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I finally found out where Joey got his inspiration...
Twins6523 December 2005
D-U-M-B! Everyone's accusin' me!

I've been listening to The Ramones' music off and on for almost 30 years now, and despite reading and viewing tons of stuff about the band and its origins, I'd never run across how they came up with the whole "pinhead" theme.

Well, I've finally seen FREAKS, often listed as one of the great cult flicks of all time. And wouldn't you know it, the "pinheads", including "Schlitze", the inspiration for The Ramones' mascot who always came out to join the band during their live shows at the end of the Pinhead song, were in FREAKS.

The Ramones also slightly modified the "freak chant" from the wedding scene, changing "Gooble-Gobble" to "Gabba-Gabba". I guess Jeffrey Hyman (Joey Ramone) must have viewed himself as somewhat "freakish" (he did have an incredible look), and really related to the group of circus curiosities assembled for this film.

After being shelved for about three decades, FREAKS started playing again at art-house theaters in the mid-60's, and that's where Joey had to have come across it.

As far as my film review, this movie needs to be viewed. Look past the stilted acting, and soak up the message. It will stay with you for a long, long time.
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The Most Reviled Film of its Time
eibon0425 April 2001
Grotesque and shocking motion picture from one of the first masters of horror pictures. Deals with the realities of what people who are physically deformed go through when working at the circus. In the film they are a close bunch who live by their own code of ethics. Told through the flashback structure, the movie tells the story of a group of circus performers who get revenge when there is an attempt of murder on one of their own to get his money. Like Straw Dogs(1971), Freaks(1932) is disturbing and relentless in its imagery.
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thought provoking
aroseaman13 July 2007
I first saw this on C4 in the UK late one night. It still stays with me to this day. As others here point out, it has a message and is certainly one crucial piece of cinema history. It is a almost a fairytale with the appropriate retribution, good versus evil. Thankfully it was saved and now available on DVD. Watch it, it will change you and the way you look at others, especially those less fortunate than yourself. Very moving. If you get a chance to watch it don't hesitate as it really is a fascinating piece of 30s cinema. It is shocking and reminds us of the days when these poor souls could only get an income from being paraded across the state fairs of the USA in the early part of the 20th century.
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Freaks Banquet Scene
russjfk21 September 2006
I just watched the movie, wow. What a concept. I have nightmares about the freaks banquet scene where they chant and chant, "we accept you, one of us", over and over, faster and faster. Those faces. THOSE FACES under the stairways. Hiding in the dark, waiting and looking. Creepy, worth a look. Another scary element is that it was filmed in 1932, that has always been a scary time, seems so far ago, I see these freaks in their respective coffins today, bones and dust, buried and forgotten. Just a dark movie, but cutting edge for it's time. The pin-headed girls laughing while they get drunk also is a sad scene, and the German accented midget who is the focus of the story, he actually seems pretty cool. I had a freak book when I was a child and recall seeing THESE SAME freaks in that old book.
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definitely not really what I expected; it's actually touching, an ahead-of-its-time fable
MisterWhiplash14 July 2006
Freaks is many things, but boring is not one of them. Tod Browning's film happens to have a certain power to it in that it's actually kind of conventional with its story- a man falls in love with a woman, who wants him (not immediately but soon after finding out) for his money, and when his friends find out they plot revenge against the dastardly woman. It almost reminded me of a fable in a way, like some kind of cautionary tale. But it's definitely not simplistic in the way of what you might expect from 1932 (i.e. 'watch out for these deformed, crazy people who may kill you in the dead of night, etc'). It's the other way around, where the woman, Cleo, and her real lover Hercules, are the 'freaks' of the film, as they lack the real friendship, compassion, understanding and reality of their situation like the other sideshow attractions do. It's Hans who ends up getting duped, but then getting a happy ending, and rightfully so with maybe the most "normal" of the bunch, his should-be wife, who also happens to be a dwarf.

So in terms of being a 'message' movie, it's actually quite good by sticking very firmly to its one-dimensional guns. It doesn't fool its audience exactly by being something else that it isn't, and Browning's background in silent and horror films is shown in some very memorable scenes. Chiefly of these are the wedding banquet with the milestone of cheerily creepy cinematic moments with the 'ooble-gobble' chant where everything becomes clear. There are also some really horrifying images in the climax when the 'freaks' finally get their payback against Cleo. Now, because of such drama being put alongside such a demented atmosphere, the film lacks a lot of things other conventional films even have. The story, even at only over an hour, takes some time to really get started after some getting-to-know scenes with the bulk of the ensemble. And there are a couple of holes that pop up as well; the end moment where Cleo is revealed in the sideshow, literally having become 'one of them', it's too ridiculous and silly to even think of how it happened.

But somehow Browning's film doesn't feel too aged- it's actually one of those superbly shot early talkies, where the images still speak well enough on their own, while the dialog from these (mostly) non-professionals adds more of the emotional impact in the scenes. Once the audience can come to accept what these people are born with or have become (and in this day and age where day time talk show outranks most of what is seen in the film it's not hard to do) it's hard not to dismiss its worth. But if you turn it off after starting to see some of these strange oddities of human nature, you'll be missing the point. This is one hell of a picture that should stand the test of time.
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A genuine rarity
Thunderbuck16 January 2006
FREAKS is one of those historical rarities that merits attention on several levels. Yes, its subject matter is sensational, but I think it stands fairly well as an example of early talkies, too.

While I was aware of the notoriety of this film for some time, I was not aware of its pedigree. One might think the film might have been thrown together as some kind of exploitative quickie, but its production involved Hollywood legends like Lon Cheney Sr (it was originally conceived as a vehicle for him) and Irving Thalberg.

The film was mired in controversy from the beginning, and this adds to the fascination. Many, many edits were demanded from the studio, particularly after test screenings (the DVD shows a few different edits of the ending in its nice little documentary). Apparently, about 30 minutes wound up being cut, and I can't help but think that if an original cut could somehow be found it would uncover a significant piece of cinematic history.

While the story is pure melodrama, and not terribly important, the "freaks" themselves (they did not see the word as a pejorative term, by the way) are fascinating in their complete normalcy. The film treats them quite affectionately, with only a few scenes that could be considered gratuitous.

Another fascinating element of FREAKS is as an artifact of its time. The sound is awkward, because director Tod Browning still hadn't mastered talkies (a Hollywood veteran of dozens of films, Browning would only make three more films after FREAKS). Sideshows no longer exist, so the film gives a glimpse into a world that could never be duplicated.

I regard FREAKS quite fondly, which might seem an odd emotion, but it's a neat little gem of a film.
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A Screen GEM
BaronBl00d1 November 1999
After his success with Dracula, Tom Browning went on to make this film for MGM. The film was a box office failure, an initial critical disaster, and an end to the beginning of Browning in Hollywood. Audiences could not take the "freaks", individuals who had malformed bodies such as a limbless torso, a pair of Siamese twins, midgets, and other odd carnival folk. Browning drew on his carnival days and filled his film with genuine carnival oddities searching for realism. He found it and an audience shocked by that realism. Today, the film is deservedly highly regarded. It plays on so many different levels, such as drama and horror, and mostly as a commentary on people and society and the ostracism of those in our society that are different. With all that in mind, Freaks is horrific. There are images in that film that will chill you...especially the climatic one of the "freaks" getting their vengeance. It is a pity MGM had this film cut after initial screenings....would love to see the lost footage.
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Not exploitative, but a haunting look into the world of sideshow artists
Camera-Obscura3 October 2006
Banned in most countries for over three decades, this is one of the most bizarre and fascinating films Hollywood ever produced. Basically a soap-opera set in a side-show, it is a look into the lives of a group of sideshow performers in a traveling circus.

In the beginning of the film, we meet Cleopatra (Baclanova), a beautiful but avaricious trapeze artist who seduces and marries midget circus owner Hans (Earles) to get at his money. At the wedding reception, the close-knit society of freaks welcomes her into the family as "one of us, one of us." Cleopatra is disgusted however by this very thought and tells them she will never be grotesque, while her secret lover, Hercules the strongman, howls with laughter. She humiliates her smitten husband by openly kissing Hercules. After they find out they tried to poison Hans, the group comes up with an idea to take revenge at the beautiful trapeze artist and her strongman lover.

Tod Browning (DRACULA, THE UNHOLY THREE) put his career on the line with the making of this film. MGM, trying to compete with Universal, and cash in on the new appetite for horror films in the early thirties, never knew what hit them with this film. It caused quite a stir and such an amount of negative publicity they decided to virtually disown it and until the '60s it remained practically unseen. The fact that infamous bad film maker Dwain Esper (REEFER MADNESS, MANIAC, see my earlier review), showed the film in road shows and burlesque houses, only enhanced the film's notorious cult reputation.

Even today many scour away from seeing this film because of its supposed voyeurism. It might be seen as a very disturbing and ugly film, but at the same time a beautiful and ultimately a moving account of the shortcomings and prejudice of mankind. Most people didn't get it and many thought of it as a new low in Hollywood depravity and were horrified with the film. In truth it's a very warm and humane look at how physically deformed people manage on their own, and a fascinating insight in the world of side-show performers, a milieu Browning (a former "snake man" in the circus himself) was very familiar with. Not an outstanding film in terms of cinematic qualities, but because of the completely unique subject matter and the almost documentary like approach to the phenomenon of the side show, whilst using actual freaks, a term that didn't have the same connotation as today.

In 1994 the film was selected for the National Film Registry's archive of cinematic treasures. Rightfully so, not only because it's a unique piece of cinema but historically one the very few cinematic accounts left on attitudes towards disabled persons. Even today, the reluctance by most people to even admit this film's very existence, only exemplifies how many misunderstandings about people that are not "normal", still exist.

The recent DVD-release comes with the excellent documentary "Freaks: Sideshow Cinema."

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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Another Browning masterpiece
fertilecelluloid27 December 2004
EVEN Dwarfs STARTED SMALL, UNDER THE RAINBOW and THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN owe it all to Tod Browning's beautiful and bittersweet FREAKS, a tragic love story based on "Spurs", a short story by Todd Robbins.

The above are pint-sized wanna-be's compared to this celluloid exploration of the sideshow life.

I see no point in detailing the plot. The film's virtues are more deserving.

The cast, comprised (mostly) of real oddities, do a knock-up job under trying dramatic circumstances, especially considering the fact that most had never done any acting before. Gaze in amazement as the gorgeous Pinheads romp in the forest. Draw your jaw to the floor as The Human Torso (no arms and no legs) lights up a fag and smokes it. Cower in horror from the knee-sized oddballs as they avenge a wrong that knows no forgiveness.

Browning, the ringmaster of the amazing THE UNKNOWN (with Chaney) and THE UNHOLY THREE (with this film's Harry Earls) saturates this classic with his great affection for Those Who Are Stranger Than Fiction and finesses a plot line that squeezes maximum tension from a premise a grand surrealist would appreciate.

The climax, in which the freaks stalk their prey, is staged at ground level in pelting rain, and is one of cinemas most haunting sequences.

In a terrible twist of irony, dwarf thespian Johnny Eck, who stars as the legless man who walks on his hands, lived well into his seventies but was robbed and kicked to death a decade ago.

We remember you, Johnny, wherever you are, pal.

A true classic of a bygone era.
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