Freaks (1932) dir. Tod Browning
Starring: Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford
By Alan Bacchus
Tod Browning’s Freaks is a sublime piece of cinema - despite the title and its cultish reputation it's a wholly accessible film and simply one of the greatest films ever made.
Browning was light years ahead of its time. Upon its release the parade of deformed and physically challenged actors which make up the main characters of the film were dismissed as grotesques monsters which people didn’t want to see on screen. And so, for Browning it was art imitating life, as the film suffered from the same type of stigmata which afflicted these physically disabled persons.
But the fact is Freaks, the movie, is both a terse and emotional engaging melodrama on a trajectory that is so wholly disturbing beyond the surface freakiness of the circus milieu.
The film opens with the introduction of a brand new circus act freakier than anything anyone has ever seen. Before we get to see the monstrosity Browning brings us back into the past and into unique subculture of circus life. It’s a vagabond lifestyle of living in trailers and in constant flux and travel, but also a microcosm of regular domestic life. There’s all sorts of wonderful characters, the half-man, half lady, the Siamese twins, a legless man, the human torso, small headed women, pinheads, midgets et al.
While Browning revels is showing us the deformities of these people, at the heart is a deeply affecting romantic relationship between two midgets Hans and his girlfriend. A love which is tested by the greed and deceit of a conniving femme fatale trapeze artist named Cleopatra. When she hears of Hans' large inheritance, she seduces him with charm and affection, eventually to marriage with the intention to kill him and eventually claim his money.
Though his girlfriend and his friends can see through this deceit Hans is blinded by the attention he never received from an able-bodied person. Harry Earles is so marvelous as the love-stricken midget, his sad face generates so much sympathy the action plays out like a classic Greek tragedy.
Eventually Hans catches on and fights back against Cleopatra eventually tricking her into revealing her true intentions, which sparks an intense finale whereby the freaks band together to exact revenge on the evil woman. And the linkup with the scene at the beginning of the film is astounding and easily one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen in a film – a reveal which packs as much of an impact as it did in 1932.
Whether conscious or not, it’s easy to see the influence of Freaks in the work of Tim Burton and David Lynch, specifically Edward Scissorhands and The Elephant Man. But it took more than 30 years, after Browning's work (Dracula) started replaying in revivals in the 60’s, before there was a demand to revive Freaks and rediscover it as the masterpiece is. But still even to this day is see the film shamefully categorized as a 'horror' film in video stores.