When Freaks was released in 1932, it received such harsh reviews that it ultimately derailed the career of its director, Tod Browning. Audiences were disgusted by the characters depicted and the overall controversy around circus “freaks” being actors. I can’t help but imagine if The Centipede came out in 1932, I am pretty sure everyone would have passed out. Anyways, Freaks isn’t grotesque by modern standards and what the past viewed as inappropriate we now see as insightful and intelligent. This film has garnered a cult following and for good reason, it is simply one of the most naturally insightful and creepy films out there.
The movie revolves around a group of circus workers that have various unique capabilities. Just like you would imagine, there are the normal clowns, aerial artists, and “strong” men, but there are also individuals with unique characteristics. Siamese twins, little people, and other individuals you would see in a Ripley's Believe it or Not. This film focuses on juxtaposing the “freaks” with some of the more ignorant circus workers. While many people view the “freaks” as monsters, Tod Browning asks the viewer to determine who the real monsters are in the film. This movie elegantly weaves romance, comedy, and horror into a fascinating look on how society shapes the term “normal”.
Freaks thrives in character development. Viewers are introduced to Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles), two little people that appear set for marriage. Unfortunately for Frieda, a conniving trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), ensnares Hans with her beauty and seduction, all in an attempt to inherit his family fortune. Once Hans realizes the sinister plot, he develops a plot of his own. Not only are the viewers privy to the evolution of Hans, but the viewer also witnesses the evolution of many of the circus performers. Side stories give insight into how many of these individuals complete ordinary tasks that we take for granted. In fact, it sometimes feels like an expose on how handicapped individuals can do the same things an ordinary person can do. All of this adds to the uniqueness of the film. I guarantee Freaks is like no other movie you have seen before.
Freaks is one of those horror films that isn’t particularly scary, but it sticks with you for a long time. There is so much backstory with this film that it adds to the mystery of it all. Numerous scenes were cut, which unfortunately have been lost to time. One of these cut scenes includes a much more gruesome end (castration) for one of the characters. The sinister quality of the film lies not in the uniqueness of the circus workers, but rather the complete ignorance of the “normal” humans in the movie. While some of the characters respect the handicapped individuals, many of them are downright mean. This movie makes you think about anytime in your life that you picked on someone who was different than you.
In the end, Freaks asks you, what is normal? It is this important question that drives the entire film. True horror fans will respect this movie for its uniqueness and the themes it generates. Everyone can relate to bullying or being put into a box. There may not be your typical scares, but this movie focuses on the long game with a chilling ending and incredible story arcs. When viewing this movie for the first time, simply go into it with an open mind. If only the villains were more open minded, they may not have ended up like they did!
If you liked Freaks, you might also like Carrie.