Tod Browning (1931’s Dracula) directs this landmark movie in which the true freaks are not the story’s sideshow performers, but “normals” who mock and abuse them. Browning, a former circus contortionist, cast real-life sideshow professionals. A living torso who nimbly lights his own cigarette despite having no arms or legs, microcepalics (whom the film calls “pinheads”) – they and others play the big-top troupers who inflict a terrible revenge on a trapeze artist who treats them as subhumans. In 1994, Freaks was selected for the National Film Registry’s archive of cinematic treasures.
eyelights: its cast of freaks. its run-of-the-mill plot. it humanization of its cast.
eyesores: its cast of freaks. its run-of-the-mill plot. its abrupt ending.
“Their code is a law unto themselves: offend one and you offend them all.”
I never wanted to see ‘Freaks’, the cult oddity from 1932. I’ve known of its existence for about two decades, but the idea of watching a group of people with massive deformities never appealed to me. Frankly, I just couldn’t stomach it.
However, over the years, I kept hearing about how significant it is, how it’s a “must-see” motion picture. And, gradually, I warmed up to the idea enough to pick up the DVD. Yet, even then, it languished on my shelf for longer than you’d think.
I guess I wasn’t ready for this freakshow.
The picture is set in a circus and revolves around a tightly-knit group of deformed sideshow performers. When one of their own falls for Cleo, a beautiful trapeze artist who conspires to take his inheritance, they gang up to exact their revenge.
The plot is thin, and the performances are uneven to say the least, but the picture has an inarguable charm to it due to the sympathetic way that it portrays its band of misfits – instead of making a mockery or a grotesquery of their uniqueness.
And these are the real deal: director Todd Browning, whose incredible success with ‘Dracula’ gave him leverage with the studio, was not only permitted to make this movie, he was allowed to put together a cast of true-to-life circus freaks.
Interestingly, Browning sympathized with these people, having worked in a circus before. And so when the idea to adapt Tod Robbins’ short story ‘Spurs’ was brought to him by star Harry Earles, he got MGM Studios to buy the rights to it.
MGM were very keen to make a film as popular as ‘Frankenstein’ had been for Universal Pictures, but they didn’t expect something quite like this; the picture suffered much resistance from the studio, the employees, and even from cinemas.
Still, producer Irving Thalberg managed to shield Browning and get the picture made. But the first preview was so disastrous that the studio trimmed all the footage that they found unpalatable, truncating the picture from 90 to 64 minutes.
Sadly, all the original footage is considered forever lost.
The studio even tacked on a “happy ending” to the film against Browning’s wishes, undoing the more horrifying finale. But it didn’t save the picture, which was nonetheless a monstrous flop and put a permanent black mark on Browning’s career.
His career never recovered.
And yet the picture lives on. It even left its mark on pop culture: for instance, the pinheads have been referenced in the Ramones’ catalogue and Kevin Smith’s ‘Clerks’ cartoons. And if the stuttering Rosco isn’t a precursor to Porky Pig, I don’t know what is.
Now, normally, people with deformities make me feel very uneasy. I don’t know what it’s about, I really don’t. That’s how I feel – even if it’s something minor. So people with such massive abnormalities as the ones in this movie should have shocked me.
But I think it’s to Browning’s credit that they are shown to be people just like us, except with their own unique sets of challenges; the men and women of ‘Freaks’ work and play together, love and support one another, and have hopes and dreams.
They’re human. They’re normal.
The picture does however exploit their physical differences, introducing each “freak” in turn, often showcasing their unusual abilities – such as eating with one’s feet (for lack of arms), or lighting a match with one’s mouth (for lack of any limbs at all!).
Strangely, the characters aren’t offbeat because of their peculiarities. Rather, it’s due to the performances: most of the cast were non-actors, and it shows; co-stars Harry Earles and Daisy Earles have a particularly amateurish and horrible delivery.
The writing doesn’t exactly help the characters: Daisy’s Frieda at one point tries to dissuade Cleo, but consequently reveals that Hans inherited a fortune. It’s such a contextually stupid move that I thought she was setting Cleo up. But she is merely stupid.
In fact, the script is really nothing exceptional. Having jettisoned much of the original story, it basically turned into your average soap opera – except with sideshow “freaks” as the leads. Thought it’s set in a circus, it’s not at all about the circus show.
And yet, that’s part of what makes ‘Freaks’ so digestible: by using a well-worn formula the picture becomes more accessible; it allows the audience to be more receptive to its few differences. Had the plot been more challenging, we’d be overwhelmed.
Of course, who’s to say that the original version of the film wasn’t disagreeable? This iteration may indeed be a more palatable edit. But we’ll never know. In any event, as it stands, it’s actually a fairly humanizing look at people who are often shunned or scorned.
So, despite my natural aversion, I must admit that I was rather taken with them. In fact, I almost wonder if the film’s title wasn’t intended to be ironic. And, given that the most twisted people in the film are the two “normal” ones, it wouldn’t surprise me.
They are the monsters, after all.
Date of viewing: September 19, 2016