Harry Earles - Hans
Olga Baclanova - Cleopatra
Henry Victor - Hercules
Daisy Earles - Frieda
Roscoe Ates - Roscoe
Wallace Ford - Phroso
Johnny Eck - Half Boy
Randron - The Living Torso
Genre - Drama/Horror/Cult
Running Time - 62 Minutes
When I thought about this October's "All Horror Month" theme, I really wanted it to be sort of different from the previous years. I wanted it to have more of a focus this year, but wasn't really sure what in particular. It wasn't until I watched the film I'm reviewing here during the Spring when I realized that I wanted to focus on horror films I have neglected - Universal Monsters and foreign horror pre-1980 - in particular, Hammer Films and Amicus Productions. So some of the focus this month will be on those films, starting with this 1932 "horror" classic - Tod Browning's controversial FREAKS.
I remember the first time I ever watched FREAKS. I was in High School during the late-90s, watching Turner Classic Movies during October when they would show classic horror that, even today, is still unrivaled regardless of the countless adaptations and remakes that have appeared since. And while the channel presented the standards, like 1931's DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, it was FREAKS that really fascinated me.
And how could it not? Instead of watching actors in great make-up portraying supernatural characters, the sideshow cast in FREAKS are not wearing make-up. The way these people look is for real! The Human Torso really doesn't have limbs. The Siamese twins are just that. The vertically challenged characters are really vertically challenged. I was captivated by these people, which enhanced the film itself. In fact, I kept asking myself how anyone even allowed Tod Browning to make a film like this back in 1932, let alone a huge movie studio like MGM. Hell, I doubt many studios would be able to get away with this now, especially during more conservative times.
Doing research about FREAKS over the years, I finally understand that the production and the aftermath were not so pretty for both this film and for Browning. Luckily, it has gained a massive cult following these days - which allows us to appreciate it and understand what the true intentions of this film were.
Within a sideshow circus that's traveling overseas, the members of the troupe are dealing with personal drama. The beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), catches the eye of dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles). This doesn't sit well with Hans' girlfriend, Frieda (Daisy Earles), especially when it's known that Cleopatra is seeing strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) on the side. When Cleopatra learns that Hans has a large inheritance coming to him, she and Hercules come up with a diabolical plan for her to marry Hans, poison him, and then enjoy Hans' inheritance once he dies.
Even though Hans and Cleopatra get married, Hans' sideshow friends see right through the "beautiful people". The sideshow members are willing to welcome Cleopatra into their world, but she dismisses them and admits that she finds them repulsive. Once Hans begins getting sick and realize both Cleopatra and Hercules are behind it, Hans' friends take matters into their own hands and prepare to punish those two for the crimes against "their kind".
- The presentation of the characters. Like I mentioned earlier, the response to FREAKS was not a pleasant one upon release in 1932. MGM wanted nothing to do with the film, afraid it would ruin the studio's reputation. Audiences were disgusted by the characters of the film, not wanting to watch a film starring sideshow performers with deformities. Rumors are that some people either fainted, ran out in the theater in fright, or had miscarriages! This 62-minute film was actually 26 minutes longer, but was cut because of how "offensive" it was, with that footage burned and gone forever. FREAKS was buried for years until the 1960s, where the counter culture found admiration in the film's storytelling and message. FREAKS also ruined Tod Browning's directorial career, even though he did direct two films afterwards.
Audiences and critics bashed the film, afraid of characters and a subject matter they had no understanding of. While some people today still find the subject matter to be a bit disturbing, they would see that Browning was using FREAKS as his way of presenting these "outsiders" in a positive and appreciative light. The "freaks" in the film are not the villains, but the victims - while the "beautiful" and "normal" Cleopatra and Hercules were the antagonists. In fact, Cleopatra and Hercules are the true "freaks" of the film. The characters are honestly the reason why FREAKS still stands the test of time today, as they are so fascinating and interesting to watch and study.
FREAKS is based on a short story by Tod Robbins called "Spurs". But the final script didn't retain much of that story besides the marriage of dwarf Hans and the "normal" Cleopatra, as well as the famous dinner scene after the wedding. The film, for its first 45 minutes, really focuses on the daily lives of its characters. It's almost a behind the scenes look at each individual - a soap opera between the sideshow characters and the "normal" characters.
We sympathize with the naive Hans, who has a great relationship with fellow dwarf Frieda. But he wants to experience a "normal" life, which leads him to find Cleopatra attractive. We should dislike Hans for hurting Frieda, but we can also understand why he would long for a life he has dreamed out due to the way he's perceived by the outside world. He's just a pawn in Cleopatra's seduction, who may be beautiful on the outside but is ugly on the inside. Cleopatra is a schemer and a golddigger, who manipulates a vulnerable Hans into marrying her, just because she wants his inheritance. Her lover, Hercules, is a bully and treats all the other sideshow attractions as inferior and beneath him.
Not all the "normal" characters are mean. Phroso the Clown and Venus are protectors of the sideshow attractions. We also have Daisy and Violet, two siamese twins who have disputes about their respective significant others, that's oddly fascinating and almost comical. They're pretty respectful of the bullied, opposing Cleopatra and Hercules at every turn.
Other sideshow attactions that are fascinating are The Living Torso, who can roll a cigarette, light it, and smoke it without the use of any of his limbs. Half Boy walks on his arms, and is one of Hans' best friends. And we have Pip and Zip, who are dubbed the Pinheads for obvious reasons. We may not know their backstories, but seeing them tells us enough of their stories to understand.
I don't think Browning or the screenwriters wanted audiences to be disturbed by FREAKS and its characters. They wanted audiences to watch with an open minded and see drama unfold into complete horror during the film's final minutes. Just because someone looks different doesn't mean they should be treated as inferior. It's the "regular" people that are the true "freaks" of the movie, doing nasty things to take advantage of those considered "different". Audiences are meant to sympathize with Hans and his "family", not be afraid or pity them because of their appearance. I understand this was a hard thing to swallow back in 1932. But even today, people still have the same reaction to FREAKS. You'd think things would change after 80 years. Guess not.
- Tod Browning's direction. After reading "Spurs", Browning did everything in his power to have FREAKS be his project after successfully directing the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic, DRACULA. Browning's passion is no surprise, as he had joined a circus troupe when he ran away from home at age 16. Hell, several of his previous silent movies - like 1925's THE UNHOLY THREE, and 1927's THE SHOW and THE UNKNOWN - all had circus environments. Browning wanted to showcase his affection and admiration of the circus life, especially those who are considered the "freaks" of each performance. But through Browning's very simple focus and direction, it's clear that he sides with the "outsiders", criticizing the more "normal" Cleopatra and Hercules for being the true monsters in the group.
Browning couldn't win with FREAKS, even though it was really his pride and joy. The film bombed at the box office. Under different names, such as FORBIDDEN LOVE and NATURE'S MISTAKES [Really? Wow...], it still couldn't catch an audience. Hell, it was banned for thirty years in England! It ruined Browning's career, although he would direct 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and 1936's THE DEVIL-DOLL. It's sad because FREAKS is a really a well directed film and it definitely shows Browning's love for the main characters.
However, FREAKS is most memorable due to...
- The final act. Prior to the last act of the film, FREAKS is pretty much a soap opera where complicated relationships are developed. The shift begins to change at the wedding feast, where the sideshow characters try to accept Cleopatra into their world after she has married Hans. The famous "One of us. One of us. Gooble gobble. Gooble gobble. We accept her. We accept her. One of us. One of us." is a bit creepy in retrospect, still the intentions are good. When Cleopatra admits her disgust of Hans and his friends, which leads to her poisoning Hans, the drama shifts straight into horror.
A lot of folks feel that Browning ruined FREAKS by adding the horror element to the film's conclusion. Critics felt that we sympathized with the characters so much during the first 45 minutes that all sympathy was lost once the sideshow characters started acting on revenge against Cleopatra and Hercules. I disagree with that. The reason why this act is so effective is because of the gained sympathy and the struggle these characters had to endure under the scrunity of Cleopatra and Hercules. They wrong Hans and them - so they're just returning the favor. It's a powerful moment that has become the film's most memorable.
I think the way it's shot and edited is timeless. No music - just ambient sound of thunder and rain, as well as the sounds of a struggle during a fist fight. Watching the "outsiders" hide under a car in shadow before they crawl into the mud to corner their bullies is just chilling, even today. It's so simple, yet so wonderfully effective. Many other films have tried to recreate this, but FREAKS nails it perfectly. Just a powerful final act.
- The acting. It's hard to judge the performances in FREAKS, when a lot of it seems genuine and real to me. But I do enjoy Harry Earles' performance as Hans, really selling his naivity and vulnerability. His real life sister, Daisy Earles, gains a ton of sympathy as the heartbroken Frieda. Wallace Ford is cool as Phroso the Clown. Olga Baclanova isn't the greatest actress as Cleopatra, but her character comes across as well as you'd want it to. You despise this woman from beginning to end. Same goes to Henry Victor as Hercules, who plays the ultimate bully. The other performers are good as well. They all sell their roles, if they're doing any selling at all, very well.
But I don't think Browning is ever exploiting them just for people to gawk at them. Sure, he uses their appearance as a way to tell his story and make the audience understand the struggle within this circus. But not all the "normal" characters are bad, so it never becomes "normal people vs. the deformed". It's obvious the story is on the so-called "freaks" [I honestly hate that work when describing these characters] side. I understand the perception of this film, but I think that's what enhances it for me. There's no make up or special effects in FREAKS. This is the real deal and I think that scares a lot of people.
THE FINAL HOWL