Based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins and directed by Tod Browning, Freaks is widely considered to have been ahead of its time. It was so shocking for the 1930s that it was banned in many places as people viewed its title as a slight against people with abnormalities. It was so shocking that it was heavily cut down and no longer survives in its original cut. Tod Browning decided to cast real circus performers instead of big name actors, a move that essentially ruined his career.
The story isn’t that complicated. Hans (Harry Earles) a sideshow midget is seduced by the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) after learning of his large inheritance. She works in tandem with Hercules (Henry Victor) the circus strong man as he’s the one she really loves. At their wedding feast Cleopatra starts to poison Hans while the freaks make a statement that they accept her as one of them even if she is normal. Cleopatra insults the freaks, throws wine at them and is generally an all around (expletive deleted). Hans now wise to her rejected her apologize before falling ill due to the poison. While bed ridden Hans pretends to accept Cleopatra’s apol0gie while also pretending to take poison medicine. As he bids his time with the other freaks for the moment to get their revenge.
Freaks is a very strange film to watch even now. I really wish I could see it how it was originally intended as you can sense that there’s a bit missing as nearly a third of the film was removed or re-shot. But even with its sizable changes Freaks remained banned in the in the UK for 30 years and still became a source of major controversy.
I really actually enjoyed the use of real sideshow performers in this film as it adds a strong sense of no just realism, but I also feel it humanize them. Now stick with me here, the freaks are humanized as they aren’t the actual villains of the film. That title goes to the normal people Cleopatra and Hercules. But the freaks are also mistreated a number of times by the other normal people throughout the film. The freaks are kind, compassionate and understanding traits lacking from most non-freak characters. It also shows them doing normal things falling in love, having children, and even the normal tasks of doing laundry. None of them are ever shown as weak or not being self-sufficient with one memorable scene involving The Living Torso aka Prince Randian lighting his own cigarette unaided. In the original cut he also rolled the cigarette. It’s a film that asks a real hard questions like “What is normal?” and “What does it mean to be normal?”.
Final thought’s, I love this movie butchered or not. So I was ecstatic to learn while reading over the history of the film to learn that some of the actors became married after meeting on set and that the film her been preserved by the United States National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Would I recommend this film? Yes very much so, but only to those people who already have an interest in films of this era. While lacking in scares until that last few moments of the film when the freaks get their revenge it more than makes up for it by being an engrossing story that wasn’t afraid to be ahead of its time, so Freaks gets a strong 8/10.