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Tag Team Review: Freaks

It takes a special kind of person to truly enjoy Z-grade cinema. Keep in mind, I’m not just talking about people who enjoy so-bad-it’s-good cinema, those are relatively common.

I’m talking about people who wallow in the stuff that’s not even ironically good. The critics who dredge up the irredeemable no-budget dreck that history forgot. These critics and their readers somehow thrive on discovering and sharing such abominations, while the rest of us live happier lives because we never knew such atrocities ever existed in the first place.

One such brave soul is Jason Grey, the foolish webmonkey who runs Triskaidekafiles. I wasn’t sure what we could review together, since our taste in films is so wildly different, but I was very happy to find a bit of common ground.

Hello, to you and your readers! I’d like to take offense at my taste in movies, but no. Nope, you are absolutely right. Don’t get me wrong, I like “normal” movies too, but there’s just something fun about digging around and finding movies no one has ever heard of, and usually for good reasons. If I’m not shaking my head at some point during a movie wondering just what in the name of Roger Corman have I stumbled into, it’s not a Trisk movie. Although with Freaks, I am sure I’ll come at things from the opposite end of the spectrum. When you wallow in bad movies, you start to see them differently.

Freaks was made in 1932, very shortly before any kind of film censorship was put in place. It quickly gained a reputation as one of the most shocking and outrageous movies yet produced, in large part because the cast was comprised of actual circus freaks whose very real deformities were clearly shown onscreen.

Freaks is a great choice, because I seem to have found and reviewed quite a few movies about sideshows and freakmakers, of varying styles and qualities. So going back to the original, the grandfather of the entire subgenre, is a natural place to start.

Though the movie was hardly recognized as groundbreaking at the time. In fact, the test screenings were so disastrous that one woman in the test audience had a miscarriage and threatened to sue MGM. Ultimately, the original cut of the film was considered so shocking that the studio deemed it unfit for release, and the 90-minute film was summarily cut all the way down to 62 minutes. The original cut of the movie is now considered lost. And not only was the movie still a box office bomb, but it was also outright banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years.

I need to see that original cut! I can only imagine what was so bad it had to come out. Likely, by today’s standards, it wouldn’t be anything too shocking, but it would make this already dark piece even darker. It’s a shame it’s lost, like so many other films.

(Side note: I was amused to find that this film was released in February of 1932. February is traditionally a dumping ground for movies that studios want to sweep under the rug, but I had no idea the tradition went back that far!)

So how did this film get made in the first place, anyway? Well, a lot of that has to do with director/producer Tod Browning, who had just directed the iconic Bela Lugosi adaptation of Dracula. Needless to say, directing a film that continued to stand the test of time for 80 years (and counting!) gave Browning enough clout that he could do whatever the hell he wanted.

Freaks was a passion project for Browning, who had run away from home to spend his teenage years in a traveling circus. Browning worked on the screenplay with Tod Robbins, who wrote the short story that served as the jumping-off point for the film. In the end, Browning had changed the idea so thoroughly that the movie was really more “suggested by” the short story. No joke, that’s exactly how the title card puts it.

Browning’s affinity for the circus clearly comes through during the movie, as the first half of it does go to great lengths to show the titular freaks as being actual people, at a time when they were little more than spectacles for amusement. It also showed them capable of falling into the same traps regular people do, such as greed, and lust, and how easily even they succumb to a pretty face.

In any case, Browning very badly wanted this story to be told, and it was ultimately his undoing. Nobody wanted to work with Browning again after such a tasteless film that failed in every conceivable way. After a few more last-ditch efforts that went nowhere, Browning finally retired from filmmaking altogether in 1939. He spent the rest of his life living in relative seclusion in his Santa Monica home until dying of cancer in 1962.

Strangely enough, the 1960s is right about the time when Freaks began to find greater recognition and gained notoriety as a counterculture masterpiece. I’m not sure exactly why or how this happened, but I’m sure the film’s depiction of cruelty against others for superficial reasons was considered very relevant at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.

So is the film really an incisive work of satire decades ahead of its time? Or is it just a masturbatory gross-out schlockfest?

Well, to start with, it’s a film with a third of the running time missing. That obviously does no favors to the pacing. Plus, scenes have a nasty habit of cutting to black prematurely, and there are some very prominent holes where a scene or a subplot clearly used to be.

Still, the removal does mean the shortened runtime makes the story nicely packed. At just over an hour long, I do like how lean and to the point it is.

Moreover, it’s a very old film. Remember, The Jazz Singer only happened about five years prior, so dialogue in movies was still mostly an untested concept. You can tell just from watching this film that nobody had quite perfected how to write, pace, record, or deliver lines of speech. Plus, a lot of the characters have speech defects, which doesn’t help.

While watching the movie, I did find it very difficult to get into, and I was never quite sure if that was just my personal bias against old movies and not being able to connect with the times, or if using actual freaks who might not be able to act was causing problems, or if the movie was so new at the time that they hadn’t quite figured out how to make movies yet, or what. Having nearly every woman in the movie be blonde did not help with following the narrative at times. I fared better on repeated viewings, and even through all that, there was still enough clarity to the story to understand what was going on. Considering how this movie was made during the very early stages of movie making, I can forgive a few things not working yet.

Another unfortunate side effect is that the characters are thinly developed and the dialogue is heavy-handed. There are exceptions, however, particularly among the sideshow freaks. Browning makes a concerted effort to develop them, their interactions, and how their various deformities affect their everyday life. Though of course, it’s obvious that the lion’s share of that angle was sacrificed to history.

It’s here that Browning’s love for the freaks really shines. They are clearly the best developed characters of the movie. While we maybe spend a bit too much time just wandering the circus watching characters, I still find it a lot of fun to see the freaks doing their things, and how they’ve adjusted to living relatively normal lives where their disabilities are overcome.

The end result is that very few of the freaks are developed beyond puppy-eyed and pure-hearted human beings who’ve been cruelly misused and misunderstood. By contrast, very few of the humans are developed beyond loud, boorish, self-centered shitheads. Granted, not all of the “normal” human characters are unkind, but it still boils down to a dichromatic morality where all of the characters are either good and kind or heartless and evil, with absolutely nothing in the way of nuance.

It’s become a classic trope of freakshow stories, that we call the freaks monsters, but it’s the normal humans who are the REAL monsters of the story… that is, until the last act of this particular movie where, no, nope. The freaks are monsters too. Justifiably so, some might say, but still.

This morality is most clearly visible in what’s basically the A-plot of the film: A love triangle between Hans (Harry Earles), a midget with a huge inheritance; Frieda, Hans’ midget fiancee (Harry’s sister, Daisy Earles) who deeply and sincerely loves him; and Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a gorgeous “normal human” acrobat who plans to seduce Hans and kill him for the inheritance. Oh, and there’s also Hercules (Henry Victor), the strongman who serves as Cleopatra’s lover and partner in sleaziness. The whole plotline is relentlessly melodramatic, and the midgets are debatably the most “normal” of all the sideshow characters. As a direct result, this “main plot” is easily the least interesting of all the potential storylines in this film. Well, aside from the romance arc between Venus and Phroso (respectively played by Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford), which is entirely void of novelty.

Of course, it’s really the message that’s the star. Absolutely everything in this movie was done for the singular purpose of portraying the sideshow freaks as full human beings with intelligence, virtue, and character flaws, just like anyone else. In ways both implicit and explicit (and brother, does the film get heavy-handed about it at times), the point is very clearly made that our outer appearance and the circumstances of our birth do not necessarily reflect who we really are or what treatment we deserve.

This is definitely not a terribly subtle movie. It is determined to raise the freaks up for most of the movie, and drag the humans down into the mud, save for one or two people. “Freaks are people too, freaks are people too!”

That said, the central theme of compassion is utilized in a very interesting way with the freaks’ code. From the film’s opening minutes, we’re told repeatedly that the freaks all adhere to a very strict code of mutual respect. They won’t tolerate any disrespect amongst each other, and they sure as hell won’t tolerate any disrespect from outside. To offend one is to offend all of them. It’s a lovely sentiment, since all they really have is each other, and the rest of us might learn a thing or two from such solidarity.

That is really putting it mildly. Solidarity is a big deal across a lot of circus culture, but it seems like it would be even moreso amongst the freaks, since they’re easily the outsiders amongst even the outsiders. The movie would’ve taken an entirely different track if someone had just gone along with the code of oneness and not absolutely *ahem* freaked out at being considered one of them.

Oh, yes. The film takes that code and goes really, really dark with it.

A significant portion of the climax was cut from the film, and it’s clear to see why. The mere sight of these sideshow freaks coming after the human characters with guns and switchblades is terrifying enough, and it’s outright bewildering after the film spent so much screen time establishing them as kind and gentle people.

Yeah, that was a truly baffling shift in tone. The movie spends so much time saying the freaks are people, and good, and better, and it’s the humans that are the real monsters. But then the tone shifts, and while it is understandable to an extent, the movie’s message instead becomes “No, nope, everyone is horrible and monstrous.” Which is certainly one way to go with things.

The entire movie was made to argue that people with deformities are still people, and any act against them would be just as cruel as if it was done against a “normal” person. And then the film ends with Cleopatra paying for her sins, subjected to such unimaginable offscreen torture that even God Himself wouldn’t recognize her at the end of it.

It is one thing to showcase the freaks in a positive light, and yet another to show that the freaks have their own darker, more base instincts, and are just as fallible as the non-freaks. However, this movie takes that notion to a whole other level.

The film starts on a message of “be nice to different people, because it’s just the decent thing to do.” Then it ends on a message of “be nice to different people, because they’ll fuck you up six ways from Sunday if you cross them.” The transition is weird, to say the least.

It seems like an entirely different movie. Are we supposed to root for the freaks? That’s what the movie seems to want us to do, but then in the last act, that is taken away from us, and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel. And that’s both a problem narratively, and kinda wonderful, to yank that rug out from under people and to shift expectations. But at the same time seems to undermine the entire point.

As for the freaks themselves, they provide the film with a marvelous gimmick. It really is astounding to see such physical tricks and deformities presented with more realism than any CGI or makeup effects could possibly render. The film also evokes tremendous admiration for those freaks with more severe deformities — You can’t help but respect someone who’s figured out how to get through life while missing two or more limbs.

This was easily my favourite stuff of the movie. I love seeing people adjust and persevere, and it’s a great message to send to people. The freaks have found a way to live, and exist, and live relatively normal lives entirely on their own terms. Another movie I reviewed, Freakmaker (which clearly owes a lot to this movie), did something similar with using some actual freaks in its filming. I hate feeling like a voyeur, exactly the sort of person who goes to these sorts of sideshows, but at the same time, it’s just inspirational on some level.

Freaks is a film that’s at once ahead of its time, and yet of its time. This is a film that could only have been made in the early twentieth century, before modern science figured out how to detect and treat certain birth defects early on. Yet the film’s central message really was intended for a more enlightened time. It would be another few decades before anyone was ready to hear a message of acceptance for all God’s children, especially coming from such outwardly hideous characters.

Which certainly hasn’t stopped people from constantly trying to make movies about freaks, and even trying to push that message, even though it continued to not really be heard for a long, long time. I’ve watched my fair share of movies about sideshows, and even the recent season of “American Horror Story”, and each and every one clearly traces its roots right back to this movie. They all have scenes ripped straight out of Freaks, or characters, or themes. The movie is highly flawed, but it has its moments, while clearly making its mark on film history, and inspiring movies even into this day.

Each and every movie I’ve seen with the same themes and settings or characters, tries so hard to be the next Freaks, but nothing has even come close, for any number of reasons. There really is nothing quite like the original, and all the other attempts are just homages to the original, with nothing quite finding new ground of its own.

Freaks is a very early film with a lot of rough edges in its presentation, and the script is dated in many ways. Still, I can say with confidence that there has never been another film like it, and there never will be. It’s truly one-of-a-kind, which is more than enough reason to give it a watch.

I didn’t immediately love the movie, and the first watching of it was rough going, but revisiting it, I definitely got more into it, and while the movie suffers from losing 30 minutes, it also benefits from it, that it cuts right to the chase, while still giving us some time with the characters and showcasing the freaks. Judging it by today’s standards is unfair, so for the time it’s pretty decent, as the industry was still trying to figure out this whole talking pictures deal, and explored some very interesting themes. But the tropes are almost cliche now, the characters broadly written with some clunky dialogue. Even with the flaws though, it is still an interesting story, well deserving of its place in film history.

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