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 his time. Upon the film’s release the parade of deformed and physically challenged actors that make up the main characters were dismissed as grotesque monsters 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 that afflicted these physically disabled persons.
But the fact is Freaks is both a terse and emotionally engaging melodrama on a trajectory that is 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 the unique subculture of circus life. It’s a vagabond lifestyle of living in trailers and being in constant flux and travel, but it’s also a microcosm of regular domestic life. There are all sorts of wonderful characters, including the half man/half lady, the Siamese twins, a legless man, the human torso, small headed women, pinheads, midgets and more.
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. It’s a love that 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 resulting in marriage with the intention of killing him and eventually claiming 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, tricking her into revealing her true intentions, which sparks an intense finale during which the freaks band together to exact revenge on the evil woman. And the link-up 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 that makes as much of an impact today 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 ‘60s, before there was a demand to revive Freaks and rediscover it as the masterpiece it is. Nonetheless, even to this day the film is shamefully categorized as a 'horror' film in video stores.