(To honor the birthday of Charles Albert “Tod” Browning (1880-1962), here is my review of his classic cult film, Freaks .)
In light of Freaks being a horror movie (Tod Browning also directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula), it’s most ironic that it treats sideshow attractions as real people. In fact, in this film, the people who treat these carnival workers as “freaks” aren’t very normal themselves–which is the point of much of this movie.
The movie primarily concerns Hans, a midget who succumbs to the flattery and charm of Cleopatra, the carnival’s local beauty, despite Hans’s being loved and accepted by the carnival’s informal family of “freaks,” most of all by Frieda, a fellow short person. The movie takes great pains to show this informal family of carnival workers most matter-of-factly. The movie’s “Everyperson” couple of Phroso and Venus interacts with the group’s Siamese twins, a man lacking arms and legs, etc., and the movie does nothing to draw great attention to these workers after their initial screen appearances.
But in spite of lacking physical normalities, these people are anything but helpless. When Cleopatra and her strong-man lover Hercules take great pains to humiliate Hans and (by extension) the rest of his extended family, they exact a most complete and utter revenge.
It is at this point that the movie, having admirably shown the “freaks” as human beings, does indeed exploit their deformities for maximum impact. And yet, the “freaks” seem quite happy to cooperate in such exploitation, probably because it shows them as both empowered and empowering. In short, the film’s message is: Just because we’re different, don’t assume we’re weaklings. In their own way, the “freaks” can kick behind with the best of cinema’s he-men.
It’s probably this very message that has caused the movie’s ongoing controversy. MGM released the movie in 1932 and then did its best to disavow the whole thing. And it was banned in Britain for over 30 years.
But in a movie era where no oddity is considered too sacred for either a quick laugh or massive condescension (see the Farrelly Bros. filmography), this movie is worth a second look. We’re all freaks in one sense or other, and perhaps if we more often looked inward, a little less hostility might directed outward.