Based on the short story ‘Spurs’ by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins, Browning’s ‘Freaks’ is set at a sideshow and is a story of unrequited love, honour, discrimination, and revenge. Hans (Harry Earles – The Wizard of Oz), a midget, recently rich through inheritance, is seduced by the Circus’ gold-digging trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova – The Man Who Laughs). With the help of the show’s strong man, Hercules (Henry victor), Cleopatra plots to marry and kill Hans for his fortune, underestimating the strength of the ‘code of the freaks’ and their familial bond.
“We accept you, one of us! Gooble Gobble!”
The plot may sound quite familiar, it is an age-old, love-triangle tale. However, it is the setting and supporting cast that makes “Freaks” so distinguished. Unlike many of today’s films in which we have 5-6 foot tall actors portraying 3-4 foot tall characters, ‘Freaks’ the pre-CGI horror film had its titular heroes played by bona fide stars of the American sideshow and circus industries.
In 1896 a 16-year-old Tod Browning ran away from his well off family in Kentucky, to pursue one of his life long fascinations, the circus. He travelled for many years with various sideshows and carnivals featuring as a Talker for ‘The Wild Man of Borneo’, as a clown for the Ringling Brothers Circus and performed as ‘The Living Corpse’ in a live burial act. In Vaudeville theatre he worked as clown, actor, dancer and magician, and in New York City he was the director of a variety theatre where he met fellow Louisvillian W. D. Griffith. Browning’s directorial carrier evolved into silent cinema throughout which he worked frequently with horror legend, Lon Chaney. In 1929 he directed his first talkie The Thirteenth Chair with Bela Legosi, a partnership that only two years later would lead to the immortal Dracula.
Browning’s successful yet, oftentimes tumultuous career in the horror genre was brought to a rapid halt after the release of Freaks, only making four more pictures before leaving the director’s chair altogether. Now considered a milestone in cinema, this film is also one of history’s most controversial features. From the first test screenings, in which one lady claimed it to have caused her miscarriage through shock, until today, this pre-code horror has continued to maintain its dangerous reputation. Soon after production, Freaks was reduced from its 90 minute running time to just 64 minutes (the cut footage is now considered to be lost), a happier ending was clumsily added as ordered by MGM studios and it wasn’t until 1963 that the UK finally lifted it’s 30 year ban on the film.
In general the film presents the ‘freaks’ as honourable kindly characters, whilst the ‘normals’ come across as shameless and a-moral. However, no individual is presented so simply. For example, as Hans’ infatuation for Cleopatra increases, his consideration for his fiancée Frida is almost entirely neglected. Meanwhile, of the two good ‘normals’ in the film, Phroso and Venus, who are kind to the ‘freaks’, Phroso, has his morally grey areas with regards to his attitude to women: “You dames is all alike. Yer sharp-shootin’, yer cheap, and how you squeal when you get what’s coming to ya”.
After the initially shock-inducing introduction to some of the ‘freaks’, where those who call them “monsters” are invited to see them as the “children” they are, the film plays out as more of a drama than a horror film. Browning elegantly turns from the exploitative and sensationalist nature of the side-show industry, to look at the every day mundanities of the ‘Freaks’ Lives. Once we have become accustomed to their way of life, and have learnt to distinguish the performers by their personalities and not just their abnormalities, Browning reverts to utilising sensationalism once again. The infamous scene in the woods helps establish Freaks as one of the greatest horror films of its time. This visually powerful sequence, in which a host of the ‘freaks’ crawl to attack, is enhanced by the erratic dance of storm-induced light and shadows, with beautiful yet hauntingly monstrous results.
As controversial as it has been over the years, Freaks is a fascinating study of the sideshow world, one all too seldom looked at with such honourable intentions as Browning clearly held. Freaks may not be considered a scary horror film by today’s high-definition, gore-fest standards but it is horrifying in the true sense of the word, and yet also tender, funny, and quite unforgettable.
After Freaks was withdrawn and shelved by MGM, the notorious American director and producer of exploitation films, Dwain Ester, bought the rights at low-cost and travelled the country showing it under titles “Forbidden Love” and “Nature’s Mistakes”.
Olga Baclanova’s bird suit worn near the end of the film was originally designed by Lon Chaney, but he unfortunately died before being able to put it to use. It was kept in an MGM store cupboard for years before Browning brought it out.