What was it, really, about Tod Browning's notorious Freaks that repulsed audiences so profoundly in 1932? In the U.S., civic groups attacked it as an example of Hollywood's depravity. England banned it altogether for thirty years. MGM's Louis B. Mayer removed his famous logo from all prints and the studio did its best to disown the film. It was savaged by shocked critics and, reportedly, audience members ran from the preview theaters screaming. Browning, who helped ignite the Universal horror-film craze by directing 1931's Dracula, had been hired by Irving Thalberg at glamour-house MGM to make a film even more horrifying. He succeeded, though not in ways that would be appreciated for more than a generation. Does its impact come just from, as horror author Stephen King and others have said, Browning going too far in casting his B-movie melodrama with authentic sideshow grotesques such as Johnny Eck (whose body cuts off at the ribcage), Prince Randian (born armless and legless, he ambulates by wriggling like a caterpillar), and an entire family of pinheads? Or is there something more shrewd in Freaks that tendrils into our brain's lizard-level?
The part of Freaks that gets under our skin isn't the plot, which fits on a Post-It Note. In a traveling circus, the statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), conspires with her lover, the thuggish strongman (Henry Victor), to marry lovelorn midget Hans (Harry Earles) and murder him slowly with poison to steal his fortune. Hans' fellow freaks, bonded in their "offend one of us, offend all of us" credo, take ghastly revenge on the would-be killer. Browning aligns us with two kindly normal performers, lovely Venus (Leila Hyams) and the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), who befriend the freaks as kindred spirits. There's also Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), who defends her "children" against a local who cries "monsters!" when he finds them playing in the woods. The film's second-most famous scene arrives when the outcasts offer to accept Hans' new bride with a wedding celebration and a passed-around goblet of wine. Their ritualistic chant "Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us" is both moving and deeply creepy. When the sacramental goblet reaches her, Cleopatra can't contain her revulsion. "Dirty, slimy freaks!" she screams, then humiliates tiny Hans in front of his peers with the strongman. Her fate is sealed. Thus comes the most famous, and controversial, scene. It's a climax that plays on our primordial fears of the Other, especially an Other that's armed and crawling, slithering, sloshing through rain and mud beneath circus wagons on a storm-wracked night.
That climax, and its macabre aftermath, are enough to make Freaks a visceral experience. But our sensitivities are already discomfited before that eerie moment. In his unadorned, plain-speaking directing, Browning implanted more than startling images of misshapen oddities. Thalberg, who championed Freaks as important, may have put his finger on more than a lurid ad campaign when he re-released it with poster taglines such as "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?" Browning, in showing the freaks as sympathetic people rather than inhuman monstrosities, dared to show the naked truth that they enjoy the same things we do: respect, affection, companionship, humor and sex. There's the proverbial elephant man in the living room no one talks about. The Skeleton Man is at the Bearded Lady's side when she delivers their baby girl. Daisy and Violet Hilton, pretty Siamese Twins conjoined at the hip, are each courted separately; Violet is engaged to be married, and already-married Daisy smiles blissfully as she feels the kiss Violet receives from the fiancé. (Consider the wedding-night implications of that for a moment.) Our prurient imaginations stumble at the geek-love realities of "Half Boy" Johnny Eck, whose face is movie-star handsome, or sausage-like Prince Randian, who rolls and lights a cigarette with only his mouth (and who in real life was a husband and father). Browning implies nothing "deviant" here. The only unseemliness casual bedhopping for the fun of it involves the "normal" circus people.
What MGM, the censors, and the public found revolting was not just Browning's documentary-like real horror-movie faces and bodies. It's the way he makes us look unblinking at these malformed individuals to see the common humanity we share with them, and they with us. They are us, Browning reveals with subcutaneous affect. Conversely, we are them, in all our fundamental qualities. Critic Andrew Sarris wrote that Freaks is "one of the most compassionate films ever made." Whether we like it or not, Freaks drills into our hindbrain and jolts our atavistic response to the not-normal, then forces us to confront our prejudices and feel something revulsion, compassion, or surprise at the realization that those aren't mutually exclusive responses. Watching Freaks is a two-way communication. It's disturbing not just because of what's in it, but also because of what we bring to it.
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Freaks is one of the most bizarre and unforgettable films to come out of a major Hollywood studio. It's now in the National Film Registry archive, but its volatile reception and subsequent near-burial kept it underground for decades. After an art-house and "midnight movie" revival in the 1960s, it appeared on VHS with poor picture and sound quality. Finally this 64-minute cult touchstone is restored in a first-rate DVD edition from Warner. The vivid, clean print shows only minor wear. Its definition and black-and-white contast are terrific. (The exception, restored from a dupey source, is the rarely-seen "happy ending" epilogue with Hans visited by his steadfast midget love, Frieda, with Venus and Phroso in Hans' mansion.) The DD 1.0 audio is quite good for this vintage.
The disc's extras offer everything you've always wanted to know about Freaks but were too weirded out to ask. Detailing the production history in authoritative detail is a commentary track by David Skal, author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning. Skal returns, with sideshow historians and performers, in Freaks: Sideshow Cinema (1:03:20). This thorough documentary includes generous segments on each of Freaks' titular personalities, discussing their offscreen lives, experiences during production, and feelings about the film.
Also here is the sermonic "Special Message" prologue (2:32) added for Thalberg's re-release. Three "alternate endings" are just recut versions of the epilogue, but they come with Skal's narration, and he reveals the intended fate of the villainous strongman a revenge so harrowing to Browning's studio bosses that they refused to sanction it. Keep-case.