These days, those with physical abnormalities are exploited by the likes of Montel and Maury to be goaded into revealing the more humiliating aspects of their lives — including but not limited to revealing cruel names they are routinely called. However, in decades past — and for much of the early 20th century — it was commonplace for those unfortunate enough to be born anomalies of nature to settle into the traveling-circus lifestyle. Tod Browing’s 1932 cult classic horror flick cum Greek tragedy is notorious for its cast of authentic physically deformed “sideshow freaks,” fueling both the cult appeal and controversy historically attached to the film. In fact, when Freaks premiered, it was downright scandalous — not only for the candid look into transient culture, but for the dark subject matter that accompanied it. As a result, the film was heavily edited (clocking in at a mere 62 minutes) and was still initially banned in several countries. Given the context of the loyal and generally good natured “freaks,” as opposed to some of their “normal” counterparts, Freaks seems decidedly less demeaning than say, The Wizard of Oz.
The film opens with a scene at a carnival — a barker leads a group of patrons over to a pen containing a monstrosity to which the audience is not yet privy. A woman screams in horror as the barker begins to tell the story of how this aberration was once a beautiful trapeze artist. Cue flashback: We meet the woman known as Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) being watched over by a dwarf couple, Hans and Frieda (portrayed by siblings Harry and Daisy Earles.) Hans is clearly enamored with this woman, much to the chagrin of his companion. I, on the other hand, am completely enamored with Hans and Frieda, who are completely adorable. Although Hans reassures his tiny, sweet fiancée that she’s the only one for him, it soon becomes evident that his intentions towards Cleopatra are clearly ignoble, lavishing upon the trapeze artist expensive gifts and attention. Moral here ladies? Men are scum — even ones weighing less than 60 pounds. (I kid, I kid!) Of course, Cleopatra is no better as the temptress in this situation — a vile, nasty woman, openly seducing Hans just for kicks while laughing behind his back.
Meanwhile, another circus couple, performer Venus (Leila Hyams) and strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), have a falling out. Hercules, being the misogynistic manskank he is, takes the most natural course of action: He runs to the arms of Cleopatra, the tramp of the circus. Cleopatra continues to wreak havoc with Hans and Frieda’s relationship while secretly continuing her affair with Herc until a jilted Frieda makes the mistake of revealing Hans’ massive inheritance, at which point the game turns from toying with the hapless dwarf to nefariously plotting his murder. From there we fast forward to the wedding feast of Hans and Cleopatra, where the remorseless duo attempt to poison poor Hans while drunkenly mocking him to the attendance of freaks and the dejected Frieda. Despite the whole “mocking their friend” thing, the freaks commence Cleo’s initiation by passing around a chalice and reciting the ubiquitous chant:
We accept her, one of us — gooble, gobble — we accept her, one of us — gooble, gobble…
Not surprisingly, the repugnant Cleo is less than thrilled to be declared a “freak by default,” and her vanity trumps her greed as she proceeds makes a huge assy spectacle of herself, thus violating the first mistake of murder, which I believe goes something like, “Don’t make a huge assy spectacle of yourself while attempting to commit murder.”
After Hans comes down with a case of the “been poisoned,” Venus confronts Hercules and threatens to go to the cops. Elsewhere, with the help of the other freaks, Hans sets Cleo up and while caravanning in the middle of a thunderstorm, at which point all hell breaks loose. Hercules breaks into Venus’ wagon and tries to shut her up the dead way, but is valiantly rescued by her new beau, Phroso (Wallace Ford), who is surprisingly hunky for a clown. Hans totally plays Cleo and corners her into fessing up, and she runs screaming from his wagon chased by the freaks — just as the two men come spilling out of the other wagon. The eeriest and most memorable scene of the film involves the injured Hercules lying in the mud as the freaks ominously crawl towards him — the human torso armed only with a knife in his mouth. Cleo, on the other hand, is pursued by the others, but the flashback suddenly cuts off with her screaming as a bolt of lightning hits a tree she cowers behind. Back in the present, we meet the squawking, grotesquely mutilated Cleopatra, who now goes by the moniker, “The Human Duck.” Think Mark McKinney’s “Chicken Lady” character sans legs, who — incidentally — was directly inspired by this film.
Occasionally the overlying plot of Freaks takes a backseat to fascinating vignettes detailing the day-to-day lives of the other sideshow performers, including the love lives of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet; the Bearded Lady giving birth to the Skeleton Man’s child; Madame Tetrallini taking care of the pinhead children; and, of course, The Living Torso, The Armless Wonder and a half man/half woman hermaphrodite. Despite the aforementioned controversy surrounding Freaks, these vignettes seem to reinforce the humanity of the sideshow performers, although given the time of its release, it may very well have been the reason for the controversy in the first place. Additionally, the overall theme of the villainous normal people in contrast to the predominately honorable so-called “degenerates” is not lost in viewing the film, nor is it a coincidence, given that Browning himself spent a good portion of his adolescence touring with the circus.
Allegedly, the film’s original ending showed in graphic detail Cleopatra being crushed by the tree and swarmed by the freaks who then cut out her tongue. Hercules, on the other hand, was to suffer the fate of, uh, castration — forced to spend his days as a eunuch, singing soprano in the opera. So you can imagine why this was deemed a little to “risqué” for the early ’30s, considering it might not fly with audiences of today. Torture porn, indeed. Regardless, it’s been more than 70 years now since the release of Freaks, and not only is it still watchable and entertaining, it’s got roots firmly planted all over the annals of pop culture. Browning’s film has gone on to inspire everything from the music of “The Ramones” to HBO’s recent series “Carnivàle.”"Like Sands Through the Hourglass..."
Film | August 29, 2007 | Comments ()