“We didn’t lie to you folks, we told you we had living breathing monstrosities,” and with that line the 1932 Horror classic Freaks begins. Considered so shocking in it’s time, the original version of the film no longer exists, and it was banned in Great Britain for 30 years.
I first saw this movie as part of a Tod Browning double feature in the New Zealand International Film festival. Tod Browing made the movie while his career was riding high after the success of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. This was the studio’s first major horror movie, and he was given a lot of leeway, or perhaps plenty of rope to hang himself. The movie was a commercial failure and basically destroyed Tod Brownings career.
The plot revolves around Hans a circus midget who falls in love with the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, Cleopatra, a trapeze artist. Cleopatra discovers Hans is incredibly wealthy and sets out to seduce him into marrying her, plotting to kill him off after the wedding so she will inherit his wealth. At this stage of the review you may be thinking, what’s the big deal, why is this movie so shocking? Cleopatra and Hans are part of a Circus of Human “freaks”. Roll up, Roll up, come and see the human torso, a half man – cut off at the waist. Come and see the sexy Siamese twins, the half man/half woman, the bearded lady, and the shrunken headed pin heads.
This movie has such a sinister and disturbing feel to it. It feels exploitive to just be watching it, and realising there was an era where it was totally acceptable to view these physically deformed people as entertainment in a circus. Some of the scenes i found cringe-worthy, particularly the wedding feast. It wasn’t so much the actual cast of Freaks chanting to Cleopatra “Gooble, Gobble, one of us, we accept her, one of us”, it was the cruelty of Cleopatra shrieking at them “You dirty slimy freaks,freaks, freaks!” She then had her strong man lover assist in placing her new husband Hans on her shoulders while she trotted around pretending to give him a horsey ride. She humiliates him completely, and her cruelty is simply painful to watch. To some degree i think there is an element of sympathy with how the director Tod Browning portrays the “Freaks” he injects them with an element of humanity. Then there are scenes where he plays on the darkness of their difference and deformity , displaying the monstrous behaviour of which they are capable in response to a threat to one of their own.
The original ending of the movie has been replaced with a happier ending. The movie was originally 90 minutes long, but was cut down to 64 after disastrous pre-screenings. People didn’t just walk out of the movie they ran, one woman threatened to sue MGM after she claimed watching the movie caused her to suffer a miscarriage.
There will never be another movie like freaks, it is quiet simply unique, bizarre and a fascinating piece of film.