Freaks (1932)

freaks1This one warrants a mention, all right.  In its time, Tod Browning’s Freaks was not only considered extremely horrific, but got such an intense public reaction that scene cuts were ordered, diminishing the runtime (and a bit of coherence) from 90 minutes to just under an hour. Most of the cut scenes are now considered lost scenes; perhaps the movie’s intensity would have been restored to modern standards if these scenes were ever found and put back in. However, at times this movie very nearly borderlines on ‘hilarious’ rather than scary.  Sign of the times, I guess.

The story centers on a group of circus performers. This group is roughly divided into two categories: freaks and ‘normals’. Each group feels a certain animosity towards each other, until…

Resident sideshow midgets Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are engaged to be married. However, Hans has developed feelings for the exotic ‘normal’ Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who only pokes fun at his admiration and giggles at him with her lover, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). However, she soon finds out that Hans is the recipient of a large inheritance and manages to woo him away from Frieda, eventually marrying him herself.d1 Cleopatra wastes no time in trying to get her inheritance; she begins forcing Hans to drink an unusual amount of poison-laced booze during the wedding. The wedding culminates in a ceremony of sorts given by the freaks to welcome Cleopatra into their fold. However, Cleopatra has drunk too much and ends up spilling that she has been having an affair with Hercules. She then begins to make fun of poor Hans and the rest of them, and leaves in a huff. For some strange reason though, Hans sticks by her.

The next day, Hans is very ill. He thinks it’s because of the amount of booze he’s consumed. However, under Cleopatra’s care, he steadily gets worse rather than better. Cleopatra is also still sleeping with Hercules, who helped her devise the plan to kill Hans in the first place. One day she is discussing the plan with Hercules and is overheard by one of the freaks. He tells the other freaks, including Hans. They decide to get rid of the conniving pair on the evening the circus packs up and begins moving to another town.

wOn a stormy night, the freaks sharpen their knives and hatchets, and manage to overturn the caravans containing Cleopatra and Hercules. In the climactic scene, Hercules and Cleopatra attempt to run from their fate, but each is stopped by a group of freaks descending upon them with murder in their eyes.

We are left to assume that they killed Hercules. Near the end scene we can see that they also maimed Cleopatra so much that she becomes a freak herself…with no legs or tongue she is doomed to being the ‘chicken lady’, stuck squawking in a box.

I did quite find this movie enjoyable. freaks-picThe plot is a twist on a somewhat typical romantic film noir love triangle. Cameo appearances by other (somewhat) famous sideshow freaks in smaller subplots make for several interesting breaks. There is the basic conversations between freaks that highlight the community culture that develops at circuses, a lovely scene in which the Human Torso (Prince Randian) lights a cigarette using only his mouth. There is also a delightful and interesting humorous subplot involving cojoined twins Violet and Daisy (Violet & Daisy Hilton) and their lovers. Each dislikes the others’ lovers, who are also their suitors but obviously have to be able to stand being around them for at least a little while. So many more little vignettes…all quite interesting to discover and watch.

freaksBy today’s standards, the quality is very poor: as a matter of fact, the sound is horrendous! Hans and Frieda’s voices are so high-pitched we can hardly hear (or understand) what they’re saying. They are also both the worst actors I’ve seen, but I guess that’s beside the point. Some of the actors have extremely thick accents, also making it difficult to know what they’re saying. For the longest time, the sound of carnival music is playing incessantly in the background, adding to the insanity of the entire thing. The video quality is also not the greatest…this film obviously didn’t stand the tests of time very well. There are moments when we can’t even really see the actors. However, I believe this has been restored as well as possible, so these items manage to just add to the overall realness of a very old film.

I’d love to see a remake of this. I think it would be both incredibly scary and poignant. Unfortunately, in this day and age it also probably wouldn’t be very politically correct. Hell, if people raised the roof over the ‘exploitation’ of freaks in this movie back in the 30’s…imagine what sort of bellowings would follow a remake of this now!


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