Freaks tells the story of a group of circus performers, many with physical imperfections. Cleopatra is a trapeze artist who fools one of the performers in to marrying her, so she can kill him, steal his inheritance and run away with her real lover Hercules the strong man.
Freaks is a difficult one to review, because much of what it presents may seem tame to us today, but it was considered highly controversial when it was initially released in 1932. It is also identified as the film which ended Tod Browning’s film career, after failing at the box office and being banned in various countries – including for 30 years in the United Kingdom. So, is Freaks worthy of its shocking, exploitative status? Sort of.
The mind does boggle when it thinks about how Freaks got (or didn’t) get away with much of the content within it. Despite trying to paint a positive portrait of the circus ‘freaks’ within it – they do get the last laugh in the end – the journey we get to that clucking climax purely portrays these people as forms of entertainment. We don’t see them perform per se, but aren’t we as an audience finding these people entertaining because they are disabled and not ‘normal’? This film is classed as a horror, but it’s not terrifying in the usual sense of the word. There’s no scares, creepy atmosphere or loud music. What’s truly terrifying is labelling a film as horrific because it features short people, people missing limbs and a bearded lady. The actions of the ‘normal’ people is where the true horror of this film lies; tricking someone to fall in love with you and plan to kill them, so you can steal their inheritance is, without a doubt, dreadful.
There is some light comedy scattered around Freaks which takes the edge off its macabre elements. However, the centre of this film is quite grim. It is difficult to watch because of its lack of story and the amount of time we spend feeling sorry for the characters. Freaks was sold as an exploitation film and, in a way, that’s all it is. It tries to do a positive thing, but whether it is actually doing good is questionable and that can’t be avoided. The ending sequences are particularly worrisome as we see the ‘freaks’ crawling around in a rain-drenched forest and Cleopatra running scared because of this. The lack of music enhances the sense of fear, creating a scene that is very difficult to watch and for all the wrong reasons. These people should not be feared, because they are just that: people. As Hans says, “I’m a man and I have the same feelings they have” and it’s hypocritical of the film to suddenly change this idea at the film’s end. Instead of people with feelings, they are beings to be feared.
There are some heartfelt moments and the true monsters of the film are those without deformities; the ones who lie and cheat to get what they want. We understand why film ends as it does, the performers acted in an understandable way. They took as much as they could from Cleopatra but she crossed the line, so go ahead, and make her “One of us, one of us.”
All in all, Freaks deserves to be seen. Not many films can compare to it and it is could be described as standing in a league of its own. Forget all you think you know about horror, because this is something strange, something else entirely.
Special Message Prologue, Commentary by David Skal, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, Alternate Endings
There is a very interesting commentary by film historian David Skal, who explains reasons for different cuts and additions within the film, the themes within it and general information about the cast and crew. It’s definitely worth watching with this commentary if you desire to delve even further into the film. Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema is a more opinionated piece which features the thoughts of various knowledgeable people, including Todd Robbins. The alternate endings segment describes the true original ending of the film, something which understandably, upset a lot of people when it was originally released. I, for one, think it sounds far superior than the ending we are given here, but that’s just me.
Words: Jessy Williams