Although the German expressionist films like Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Murneau’s Nosferatu are milestones, it was the 1930s that brought about the first wave of truly popular horror; beginning with James Whale’s classic take on Frankenstein, horror movies hit their opening stride as crowd-pleasers, and more importantly to studios, money-makers. Soon, other classics were being churned out; Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Black Cat, and many others joined the growing stable of popular fright flicks.
One of the strangest and most poignant of these, however, was swept under the rug in its day because of closed minds and controversy, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s and becoming something of a cult sensation. The film has inspired such artists as Frank Zappa and the Ramones in their music, and continues to be emulated even today in American Horror Story: Freak Show. Directed by the man who first brought Count Dracula to the screen, Tod Browning, I’m of course referring to the 1932 film, Freaks.
Hans is a dwarf in a traveling carnival freak show, but he has a secret: he’s actually the heir to a sizable fortune, but he’s not told anyone other than his fiancee, Frieda, another “little person” in the entourage. Although the freaks of this carnival have a strong sense of family and solidarity, Hans can’t help but be captivated by the beauty of Cleopatra, the blond bombshell of a trapeze artist, who spitefully flirts with him for her own amusement (and borrows nice chunks of change from him as well). All of this greatly disturbs Frieda, and she seeks the advice of their “normal” friends, Phroso the clown and the lovely Venus, and the comfort of her “family” of other people with abnormalities.
Cleopatra, using her beauty and wiles, finds out about Hans’ fortune, and manipulates him into abandoning poor Frieda and marrying her. All the while behind the scenes, she and the strongman, Hercules, are carrying on an affair. Together, they slowly begin poisoning the little man, their avaricious eyes on the money. The freaks and their friends find out about this blackhearted plan, and it’s not something they take lightly; you see, freaks have a code: offend one, and you offend them all. Cleopatra and Hercules will learn that, like a thunderstorm on a dark night, revenge can be remorseless and unspeakable…
First off, I have to say that even though this movie is over eighty years old, the unease you’ll feel at times seeing some of the startling (and at times, horrific) deformities on some of the performers is palpable. Y’see, Browning used actual freaks for his cast, culling together a remarkable ensemble of some of the strangest abnormalities ever put on screen. That said, watching the film, you’ll find yourself getting to know these people as human beings, learning their joy, their sorrow, their humanity, and you’ll see beyond the body and look into the spirit of these individuals. It struck me as remarkable that a film of this era provoked such introspection; it’s not long at all before you’ll find yourself hating some of the the “pretty people”, and cheering for those whom society would throw away. Truly impressive is the subtlety of this lesson; the film is never preachy, nor is the viewer force-fed anything; it’s an accomplishment of a deft script and passionate portrayals, each actor obviously playing their part from their own tortured pasts.
Now before you Fellow Fans go off thinking this flick is all just a big morality play, there’s some goodies for us horror-philes: True, it’s not really a horror flick in the purest sense, but a lot of what you’ll see is disturbing, because it’s real; no special effects, no costumes, these are real people. The evil plot of Cleopatra and Hercules is vile enough to be horrific in it’s own right, especially once your sympathies have been firmly seized by the freaks…
…then comes the last fifteen minutes or so of the film…now here is some terror; some of the finest of the era, if not of all time. The images of the vengeful freaks pursuing their prey through the mud and pouring rain is nightmare material of the highest caliber…no, this isn’t your typical horror film, but the climax of this one can put you off your popcorn.
Browning pulled on his own experiences as a circus and carnival performer to breathe life into his script; his characters are rich and convincing, with particular attention paid to the “freaks” and their collective spirit of family. Impressively, he’s able to bring out the humanity in these people, making us see beyond their physicalities and find the humanity beneath; of course, in Cleopatra and Hercules, he paints so-called “normal” humans in the most monstrous and despicable colors as we humans are capable of.
It’s this interesting comparison that gives the film its real power; who are the more deformed? Those with visible, at times disturbing physical abnormalities, or those people with twisted morals, black hearts, and greedy souls? Fortunately, with the characters of Phroso and Venus, he shows us that there is tolerance in the human heart, and gives we the audience something to aspire to, hopefully inspiring us to follow their example and find the beauty in all people, regardless of their outward appearances.
Using the physically afflicted to demonstrate goodness of the heart against deplorable machinations of “beautiful” people was an inspired and progressive idea; perhaps too much so for less progressive minds. The film and its director were way ahead of their time; addressing such issues as discrimination and the value of the human spirit in 1932 in such a blunt and unapologetic fashion was far-seeing and courageous, but like a ragged fart during a church devotional, it wasn’t something easily accepted by the people of the time. Immediately after the film’s release, people protested; it’s said that there was fainting in the theaters, and even a miscarriage was blamed on the film; religious groups and morality leagues picketed…clearly, these were people that either didn’t watch the film, or were so small-minded as to completely miss what is a very plain message of “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “we’re all God’s creatures”. Such blind ignorance notwithstanding, the movie became a hotbed of controversy, and of course the Hollywood system of the 1930s wasn’t going to put up with it; the studio heavily re-edited the film, but the negativity still remained. The movie faded quickly and unceremoniously from theaters, and Browning was ostracized, effectively ruining what up till then had been a prosperous and popular career in Hollywood.
Maybe there’s an ironic lesson in that as well.
Freaks is a historically relevant 1930s horror film, with a strong message and some disturbing imagery. You know what you’re buying before you sit down to watch it; sometimes stiff camera-work, stagey settings, some dated dialogue choices; as I’ve said before, you have to watch a film with respect for the time it was made. If this sort of thing isn’t your gig, you may want to pass…but if you’re a fan of classic horror, or classic cinema in general, you owe it to yourself to check this one out; to my eyes, it’s a powerful (and at times, chilling) examination of where true horror lies: the capability of some of our species to be inherently selfish and cruel.
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