Freaks (1932)

freaks_3Starring Harry Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Frances O’Connor, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Koo Koo, Prince Randian, Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, Elizabeth Green

Directed by Tod Browning

Expectations: High.

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Freaks is a weird little movie. It’s just so hard to classify. I’ve heard it most often talked about in the context of being a horror film, and in some ways it definitely fits that bill. Director Tod Browning had made the seminal classic Dracula for Universal just the previous year, so if nothing else Freaks has horror clout. But most of Freaks isn’t horrific at all, it’s a twisted love story as old as the hills. So why then has the film built up a huge cult following in the 80+ years since its release?

The simple answer is the casting. Instead of using makeup and prosthetics to achieve the circus freaks of the film, Tod Browning opted to use actual circus performers in the film’s roles. And not just as the background color, they fill out many of the major roles. This gives Freaks — even to this day — a spectacle-like quality that would otherwise be missing. The silent-era version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an interesting movie, one well-worth watching for dedicated film fans, but we all know that the hunchback is Lon Chaney in makeup and he’s not really hunchbacked. The performers in this film bring a reality to the screen that is rarely seen.

freaks_1There’s a part of me that applauds this move, as it is easily what set this film apart from others. It is the reason we’re still talking about Freaks. But at the same time, the casting also makes me feel like it might be somewhat exploitative, a stunt like those used by carnival barkers to entice people inside the tent to see the bearded lady or the snake woman. The story definitely does not play up these exploitative elements, though, instead painting the malformed players as people just like you or me.

So I guess that must be the takeaway from Tod Browning’s Freaks, that the film is something of a human rights piece on how everyone should be given equal respect. The film acknowledges that the performers are different, strange and unique, but it always does so in a humanizing way. While the entire film is set at the circus, we only catch a short glimpse of a performance, and even that is of one of the few “normal” people who are also working in the troupe.

freaks_4Most of the film is composed of slice-of-life scenes detailing the day-to-day lives of the many performers. The camera and the story move through the camp like a fly on the wall, witnessing hushed conversations, unrequited love and passionate quarrels. And while these scenes sometimes stray off the story’s path and become somewhat meandering, they help to illustrate the film’s ultimate message that we’re all the same, no matter what form we may have popped out of the womb in.

Tod Browning’s Freaks is not something that I would clamor to see again, but it’s a film that definitely stands the test of time. While it survives almost purely on its inspired casting of real-life circus performers, its message is true and resonant even today. And besides that, the final 10 minutes or so are visual perfection and achieve an incredible amount of high-quality, horrific tension. Classic film fans and lovers of strange, fringe cinema should definitely seek this one out.

Freaks was a part of the 2013 Blind Spot Series where I see one movie a month that I feel I should’ve seen a long time ago. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. Head over there tomorrow where he’ll have a post of his own for the series, as well as links to all the other people taking part in the series.

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