Chainsaw Cheerleader Reviews: Freaks (1932)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Tod Browning
Based on: Spurs by Tod Browning
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Harry Earles
Genre: classic horror, drama
The Freaks: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble!”
In the 1920’s, Hollywood introduced the glorious talkies. With the use of sound entertainment was changed forever. This change strengthened the experience that the average movie goer witnessed. Due to this, films that previously had heavy references to sexuality, sex, illegal drug use, and violence were now subject to the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code, which forced films to follow strict censorship guidelines. It would be these guidelines that would wreak havoc on the production of horror films. Before sound, the audience did not feel fear that was meant to be brought on by the now classic horror movies but with sound, the movie monsters was given the bark to their bite. It was sound that complemented these films and brought about the fear that these films deserved. While sound brought about the much needed fright that horror films starved for, it also subjected it to drastic editing and limited releases. After the 1932 release of the film Freaks, horror movies would never be the same. It was Freaks that helped startled audiences call for stricter forms of handling of such films. It was also the death sentence for the career of the film’s director, Tod Browning, who collaborated with Lon Chaney and directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931).
Freaks follows a traveling carnival in 1930’s France. Focusing on the daily lives of sideshow performers, Freaks details the survival code of these men and women, cross one and you have crossed them all. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a vainglorious trapeze artist who mocks the carnivals freaks, has little interest in a little person performer, Hans (Harry Earles), until it is revealed that he is air to a vast fortune. With the help of Strongman and romantic interest, Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleopatra constructs a plan to relieve Hans of his inheritance. After marrying the little performer, Cleopatra slowly poisons her husband until the freaks realize her scheme.
Due to the Hays Code, Freaks was cut from ninety minutes to sixty-four minutes. It is the end of the film that has suffered from the most editing. In the original cut, Freaks settled this Greek tragedy by having the sideshow performers come after Hercules with a range of weapons. After castrating him, Hercules is later seen singing falsetto. Cleopatra’s fate is, while not similar, just as severe. The freaks melt and reform her hands to look like duck feet and tar and feather her. After butchering a rather fitting ending, MGM pieced together a happier alternative without the violence. Much of the editing was due to poor audience test screening. One movie goers reaction was to sue MGM after watching Freaks because she believed it caused her to suffer a miscarriage. Despite the cuts, Freaks was still poorly received and was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years due to the shock brought about by its cast. Even after MGM added new comedy sequences, a new prologue, and a new epilogue, Freaks caused its audience to question their 1930’s cookie cutter morality.
The cast of Freaks showcased a wide variety of different sideshow performances that were popular in the 1930’s. With performers like Zip and Pip (pinheads), intersexual Josephine Joseph (half man/half woman), Prince Randian (the Human Torso), and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl (who suffered from Virchow-Seckel syndrome, also known as bird-headed dwarfism), the film was drawn from personal experiences that Browning had had during his early years traveling with the circus. While Browning attempted to show his audience that the sideshow performers were admirable hardworking people and that the film’s real villain were those that society deems as “normal”, the film appears more exploitative than a tale of innocent love gone awry. Browning provides no explanation or evidence as to why the audience must see the freaks as “normal” while he shows them behave in a manner that in the 1930’s would seem as actions purely performed by the insane. The audience’s reaction is almost predictable given a basic understanding of an era that did not allow women to vote until eight years earlier and it was still illegal for interracial marriage. The response of the public can best be expressed in the reaction of screenwriter, F. Scott Fiitzgerald. After witnessing a scene involving Siamese twin sisters, Fitzgerald proceeded to run to the bathroom and vomit. Sadly, this reaction is lost on the audience of today. While sound may have played a key role in the disturbance that the audience felt when they first viewed Freaks, time has passed and with most audience members being subject to far more horrific concepts than sideshow performers, Freaks has lost any fright is once held. Viewing Freaks seventy-nine years after its original release feels more like a study in film than a true scare. Freaks may pale in comparison to many of today’s horror films but it still holds value among those who treat movies more as an experience and less as entertainment.
Horror films of the 1930’s can only be described as having captured the essence of early Hollywood, of when art came in a variety of forms, even scares. With the newness of the talkie and the act of many directors adapting German expressionist techniques to dramatic films, classic horror films such as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and even Freaks, have had the ability to withstand the test of time. While many of the early horror films are not as intense or graphic as horror films of this era, one must question will these newer film be considered classics in another seventy-nine years as Freaks is? What is this generations Dracula? What is this generations Bride of Frankenstein? What is this generations Freaks? Will films such as the Saw franchise be look back upon in greatness and studied by film students or as filming technology improves will it be laughed at?
For some, it may be difficult to view Freaks as a horror film. In the almost eighty years since its release society has become more excepting of persons with deformities and disabilities. In the past someone with dwarfism or born without limbs could be seen as terrifying. There are in fact very few horror films from this era that do not feature a monster that is not disfigured in some way. In a time when a person born with a disability was sent away to live in a asylum or not allowed to leave their home, it is not surprising that the cast of Freaks would be seen as frightening. It is only today that we are getting better at embracing those who look different. It is this reason alone that makes one question if this classic horror film is purely just a sad little love story.
Freaks, while not perfect by any measure, is still a very interesting and prevailing piece of work. Known to have inspired The Ramones to David Lynch, Freaks has earned its right to be considered a counterculture cult film. It is by no means a movie for the average movie watcher. A passionate fan or student of film can look past the weak voice work and at time poor acting, to see how this misunderstood work of art is truly a significant piece of horror movie history.
Freaks receives a 7 out of 10