The Scoop: 1932 NR, directed by Tod Browning and starring Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams
Tagline: The Strangest… The Most Startling Human Story Ever Screened… Are You Afraid To Believe What Your Eyes See?
Summary Capsule: Ridiculed sideshow freaks get their revenge!
Eunice’s Rating: Hur-ray, hur-ray, hur-ray! Come on now, don’t be shy, step right up! Right here behind this curtain is a show unlike any other!
Eunice’s Review: Freaks is a very strange and one of a kind film. That makes it very hard to classify or pigeon hole. On the one hand it is officially a horror film, but I don’t think you can comfortably confine it to that label.
There is horror though. In fact, you could say it has horror on two levels. The last fifteen or so minutes (which I won’t give away) are really the stuff of nightmares, with what we more traditionally think of as horror. The other level comes from a darker deep down part in people that we don’t really like to admit. The aversion a lot of people feel, the discomfort with the subject of real circus “freaks,” and the nasty feeling that in some ways we might be like the so called “normal” people of the film thinking them somehow less than human.
Freaks is about several different characters in a traveling circus like Siamese-twins Violet and Daisy and their men, or that half-man half-woman Josephine carries a torch for strong man Hercules, etc. Played by real circus performers, these pieces set up opportunities to show their capabilities like a woman with no arms feeding herself or Prince Randian, the guy who’s only a head and torso, lighting a cigarette. The movie feels more celebratory than exploitative, especially compared to something like The Terror of Tiny Town another Harry Earles movie. They are presented as people who feel and think and see themselves as performers, not just things to be laughed and stared at.
But there’s two storylines that are the focus of the movie: First Animal trainer Venus breaks up with Hercules because he’s a real jerk. Which leads to a friendship with clown Phroso. It’s a sweet comic storyline pretty common with movies of the time (reminds me of the relationship between Fay Wray’s character and her editor in Mystery of the Wax Museum). These two are a couple of the few normals who treat the freaks like, you know, people. Let me just stick in here that I love, love, love, where the audience is introduced to Phroso while Venus yells at him and step-by-step he takes off his clown makeup. It’s very cleverly done.
The other even more important storyline involves a romantic square. Hercules starts an affair with aerialist Cleopatra. Cleopatra has decided to start stringing along dwarf Hans getting all the money, gifts, and amusement she can out of him. Hans however is/was engaged to Frieda, a bareback rider and fellow little person. While everyone but Hans can see it’s a big joke, Cleo and Hercules just laugh themselves silly and heartbroken Frieda can only feel embarrassment on Hans’ behalf.
Everything starts to come to a head when Cleo finds out Hans has inherited a fortune and she decides to marry and then murder him.
See, the title may be Freaks, but the real monsters of the film are Herc and Cleo. Freaks is more of a revenge flick than anything. Kind of like a Twilight Zone episode where everything gets turned on its head and the universe metes out justice. Or how you’re kinda cheering on Carrie (at least I do).
Like I said, most of the people here aren’t professional actors, and the real actors are still carrying over a lot of Silent and early Talkie technique. But it still remains a powerful effective movie today. This holds true for Todd Browning’s direction too, there are shots that are both haunting and hauntingly beautiful. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1932.
If you give it a shot, I’m pretty confident you’ll find a movie you won’t soon forget. It’s definitely worth the price of admission.
*Using MicroSoft Movie Rating System*
Justin’s Review: Now, who says that there aren’t any good horror flicks earlier than 1973? Me, actually. And for the most part, those horror films since ’73 have stunk as well.
But here is the rare gem of an exception, a 1932 scare-a-thon that still eerily works today. Freaks is a film with actual circus sideshow freaks. . . one of the main reasons why it is so scary (and why it was banned in the US for so many years). You are simultaneously repulsed, attracted, and fascinated (kinda like the way you pick at a scab) by the inhabitants of this film: midgets, people with no arms or no legs (one guy with none of the above), a siamese twin, a hermaphrodite, and stuff that you will never even see on the X-Files.
It’s a cute plot in a 30’s kind of way, and I got lulled into thinking that it would be no more sophisticated than a Disney flick. There are a couple of normal circus members who torment the freaks; the freaks get revenge. It’s handled with a delicate touch; the freaks are portrayed with sympathy and humanity. But. . . there are scenes in here that will haunt you till the day you die — doesn’t that sound like your grandpa talking?
In fact, don’t see this movie. You couldn’t handle it at all. Go rent the placid Scream for a nice, calm evening. (psst… hey, didja think the reverse psychology worked? huh? I’m still typing the review? Damn!)
- This was the last big picture for director Tod Browning. After enjoying success with thrillers, horror, and just plain weird movies (especially his team-ups with Lon Chaney), his career hit a high note with Dracula. Freaks was his follow up, and his first movie after moving from Universal to MGM. After MGM recut it and filmed a different ending to make it less offensive, the movie flopped and flopped hard, being banned in the US, UK, and Australia and disowned by the studio. Browning pretty much went to “director jail” with his career limping to an end on cheapies and uncredited work.
- “The film’s original ending showed Hercules singing soprano in Madame Tetralini’s new sideshow because he had been castrated by the freaks. After intensely negative reaction by preview audiences, this scene was cut.”
- After complaints from MGM cast and crew, the side show performers were segregated to outside the studio cafeteria during breaks. Also many bigger named actors and actresses turned down the movie finding either the subject or working with the freaks themselves too offensive.
- Hans and Frieda were real life brother and sister Harry Earles and Daisy Earles.
- Kyle S. writes in, The Siamese-twins in the film were played by ex-freak show-cum-vaudeville performers Daisy and Violet Hilton. They also appeared in another film that exploited their “Siamese twin-ness” called Chained for Life. Their life story was basis for the 1997 Broadway musical Side Show.
Phroso: Ah you ain’t so hard to look at. Give yourself a tumble!
Freaks: [chanting] Goobble gobble! We accept you — one of us!
Venus: My people are decent circus folk!
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Unholy Three (either version)
- The Black Cat
- Carrie (1976)
- X Files the show