Sunday, October 21, 2012
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Henry Victor
Chip from Tips from Chip recently reviewed this film, and he spoke well as to the issue of exploitation in it. That point sums up this movie rather perfectly. Tod Browning’s Freaks is a disturbing film. While not a pure horror film, the final act puts us squarely in fear and dread territory, making this film a worthy part of any Halloween marathon.
Freaks tells the story of a group of travelling circus performers. While there is the obviously the strong man, Hercules (Victor), the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Baclanova), and the bearded lady, most of the troupe is comprised of the “freaks” of the title, people with physical deformities, played by actual circus performers. The story focuses on Hans (Earles), a little person who is in love with Cleopatra. She mocks him and makes eyes at Hercules, but when she finds out Hans is wealthy, she marries him then plots with Hercules to kill Hans for his fortune. When the other “freaks” find out about this, they exact their revenge on the dastardly Cleopatra and Hercules.
The power of this film, now 80 years old, lies in Browning’s use of actual circus performers. We have several characters missing various limbs or with muscular-skeletal diseases, and there is a disturbing fascination with seeing this so unflinchingly portrayed on the screen. We just don’t see this in films now, and certainly not to this extent. But Browning is also clear these people are people, and not monsters. He may put them on the screen for us to goggle at, but he does so while showing their humanity and compassion.
But, ironically, Browning shows us their humanity and compassion, but then reiterates that they are indeed human and not angels. The “freaks” take their revenge after being grievously wronged. They will not sit back and let the world mock them. They stick together, they defend one another, and watching them act as a brotherhood, united against common enemies, is what makes this film start to enter the horror genre. The final act involves the circus caravan moving between towns in the pouring rain. Cleopatra and Hercules have been caught by Hans, and the “freaks” exact their revenge. The sinister shadows, the rain-drenched ground, the slow closing-in upon the prey – this is a disturbing finale. The basic plot structure – good guy is constantly picked on, finally rises up to face and defeat bad guy – has been done time after time after time. But you’ve never seen it done quite like Browning did in Freaks. Usually there’s a feeling of triumph when the good guy defeats the bad guy. In Freaks, it’s frightening. Instead of simply overcoming adversity, Browning plays up the fact that all of us, every single “one of us,” has a breaking point, and if we are pushed to far, there are no lengths we won’t go to in order to fight back. In that respect, Freaks can be classified with films such as Deliverance and Straw Dogs. Push us too far, and we will push back in violent and gruesome manners. According to iMBD, in an initial cut of the film, the “freaks” castrated Hercules as punishment. Test audiences reacted so negatively to this that Browning toned it down, but this is how far Browning wanted to go with the idea of revenge. He really wanted it out there. This wasn’t just bloodlust, this was the desire to torture.
After all of that, I forgot that one of the major themes of Freaks is, rather unexpectedly, love. The main story of Hans and Cleopatra is about unrequited love, especially as we watch Hans’ true love, Frieda (Daisy Earles), watch despondently from the sidelines as her love is distracted by another. Along the way, however, the sidelines are dotted with little anecdotes of love. The bearded lady has her first child and everyone celebrates. The conjoined twins each get offers of marriage and celebrate. All the various “freaks” are depicted as living their lives with companionship and love, and this goes a long way to speak against the argument that Browning is simply exploiting their deformities. I forgot about the second major love story in the film, that between normal stature performers, the clown Phroso (Ford) and animal trainer Venus (Hyams). We watch the blossoming of their romance as it parallels the seduction of Hans by Cleopatra, but Phroso and Venus is far more palatable. In the first of three segments with Phroso and Venus, it opens with Venus breaking up with cruel Hercules and spewing some of her anger at Phroso. He is in the process of changing out of his clown costume. He starts to argue with her (“don’t yell at me, I’m not the problem, not all guys are dicks, etc.”), but continues to change out of his costume/makeup. During the course of their argument, she starts to see him in a new light, literally as he transforms from clown to handsome young man. It’s a very nice touch. When they finally kiss, I admit to getting that gushy feeling in my stomach. It’s a cliché, perhaps, but I really like their romance. But while Phroso and Venus are both of normal stature, Phroso makes a cryptic comment in the film that perhaps explains why he’s so empathetic to the other “freaks.” Venus says to him, “Hey, you’re a pretty good kid.” To which Phroso responds, “You’re darn right I am. You should’ve caught me before my operation.” Is Phroso, who looks perfectly “normal” from the outside, a “freak” himself? Sorry to say, but my brain immediately goes to wondering if he has something wrong “down there.” Gutter mind? Perhaps. But what does that mean, his operation? It’s a tantalizing little hint that even the “normal” people are, indeed, “freaks.”
Chip is absolutely right – there is no way this movie could get made today. Absolutely no way. There is a great deal of odd power in this film, a bizarre sense of voyeurism, peaking behind the curtain at other people’s lives, and other people very different from myself. It’s fascinating, but not in a comfortable way. The ending is truly frightening (tacked on happy ending not withstanding). But overall, I forgot how many moments of unexpected sweetness and love are mixed in with the atmosphere of the bizarre. The acting is stilted, and this is early sound, so there’s really no soundtrack to speak of, but Freaks is one of a kind, and should still be seen today.
Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10