Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Harry and Daisy Earles, Johnny Eck, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Schlitzie.
“We accept her–one of us–gooble, gobble–we accept her–one of us–gooble, gobble…”
It’s not difficult to understand why Freaks caused such a furore back in 1932. Public understanding of things like genetic abnormality and deformity wasn’t the most enlightened it’s ever been.
Hell, even in the lengthy title scrawl explaining that these so-called freaks are as human as you and me, there’s still phrases like “blunders of nature” being thrown about.
It’s a strange one to view with modern eyes, as on the one hand it gives a very positive portrayal of the so-called freaks, focusing on their backstage daily lives and relationships rather than their front of house public personas, but on the other, the only real horror in the film is…well, the freaks. And even then, it’s only in the final sequence that director Tod Browning really plays up that element.
For the most part, it’s more of a drama/thriller than anything else, at least until that chilling ending, which again relies on being horrified by the freaks themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned Freaks is most definitely a horror movie, if not a great one, but its whole schtick of not judging by appearances and how they are people with feelings just like you and me falls apart when their appearance and behaviour is *entirely* the source of its horror, even if the true villains are the so-called beautiful people. It’s a strange one.
A carnival barker introduces a new act in a pit so hideous that it causes screams of horror from the crowd gathered around it, promoting him to tell the story of how it came to be…
Hans and Frieda (Harry and Daisy Earles) are a pair of dwarf performers in a travelling circus whose engagement is abandoned when trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) comes on the scene. Hans has fallen in love with her, despite her clear contempt for him. Initially just exploiting his infatuation to receive expensive gifts for her strongman lover Hercules (Henry Victor) to sell, Cleopatra soon connives to marry the dwarf when she finds out just how wealthy he is. Worse, she attempts to murder him once they are wed by slowly poisoning him…
After such a hostile response, Freaks is now regarded as somewhat of a classic and a unique one at that. I’m not so sure.
It’s got a lot going for it. The use of real carnival sideshow performers with disabilities was a brave move at the time and adds a fair dose of authenticity to the film, plus Browning goes out of his way to not only show them as normal people who just happen to look different, but to seed lots of little subplots all through the story.
The scenes with conjoined twins Violet and Daisy are particularly wonderful, with each feeling the sensations of the other when they are kissed or even touched, while the Armless Girl using her feet to eat and drink is shown so casually as if it was the most normal thing on earth. Such positive representation of such things was years ahead of its time.
The main plot of Hans and Cleo is engaging enough, but it’s fairly pedestrian too, only with some extra added cruelty as she and her full-size lover humiliate the unfortunate dwarf, particularly in the drunken wedding scene which is hard to watch at times for its nastiness.
Cleopatra is truly vile and brilliantly played by Baclanova, making her a character you can’t wait to see get her comeuppance, while Daisy Earle really breaks your heart with her quiet sadness, not at her own heart being broken, but for what she can see happening to the man she loves, even though he’s treated her so badly.
It’s not so black and white as to just be saying it’s the “normal” people who are the real freaks though , as the supporting duo of Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) and warm and engaging too, a perfect counterpoint to the main villainous couple.
It’s all very melodramatic up until that ending and while it’s extremely effective, I’m still unsure what Browning was trying to say with it. The imagery of all the Freaks crawling through the mud and rain under their carriages to is proper nightmare fodder and brilliantly done, but it’s shot like they’re monsters, even though we’re on their side. It’s only then that the horror of this film kicks in and a big part of it is based on that thing that’s supposed to not matter. Hmmm. It’s a great and iconic ending for sure, but I’m not sure it’s in keeping with the rest of the film.
On the whole though, Freaks is more interesting and worthy than it is actually engaging for me. It’s a fairly traditional and well-worn story transplanted to an unusual setting sure, but is it as great as it’s cracked up to be?
For me, it’s a no. Not even close.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy