Tod Browning’s “Freaks” may only have ever been made in that twilight period of the movies where sound pictures were still in their infancy and the Hays Production Code had not yet been established. And yet this cult, horror classic seems both ahead of its time and repulsively dated.
The film is a love story between a collection of sideshow performers in a circus, and “Freaks” is so strikingly notable because Browning, coming right from the traveling circus himself, successfully cast individuals with actual disabilities and deformities. There’s the two lovely Siamese twin girls, a half man/half woman, a man without legs, another with only a torso, a bird lady, an armless woman and the Pinheads, the latter of which are simply horribly deformed.
The central characters however are two dwarfs, Hans and Frieda (actual brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles), who are engaged to be married until Hans develops a crush on the ravishing trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She uses Hans for his money and laughs at him behind his back with her lover, the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). The two try to poison Hans, and the circus freaks collectively get their vengeance by murdering and mutilating the two normals.
As you might guess, this film generated serious controversy for its depiction of disabled individuals. It was a flop upon its release, effectively ended Browning’s career as a film director and was banned internationally for virtually 30 years. Since then it’s developed a cult following for its chilling sequences near the finale in which all these “monsters” crawl after Cleo and Herc in the rain and the mud to attack them. Browning places us on their ground level, and the lighting illuminates their squalor and struggle.
But if the rest of the film aims to be compassionate to this undervalued group of people, it misses the mark. All the circus performers get their moment in the spotlight, but Browning trots them out for a series of visual gags and one-off puns as though this were an exploitation film with the intent for them to be gawked at. The half man/half woman shoots a look at one character, and an onlooker replies, “I think she likes you, but he doesn’t!” One half of the Siamese twins twice exclaims that she has somewhere to be when the other half’s stuttering husband complains that she always uses that excuse. We even see one twin making out with someone and the other half smiles as though she feels the same elation.
These people are defined by their disabilities, and we wouldn’t care for half of them if it weren’t for the vile hatred of Cleopatra. “Freaks” has a story that would be flimsy and generic if it had nothing to do with the disabled, and Browning’s problem here, as in the similarly overrated “Dracula,” is that the movie’s villains are more interesting than the protagonists we’re supposed to root for. There’s little suspense or drama here until the grotesque ending. What comes before is a movie with little going on cinematically and even less in terms of developing an appropriate way to use sound.
And yet “Freaks” remains an influential landmark in film for the outcry it produced and the production lengths it took. People more suited to discuss horror than I have written about it, and I suggest you take a look.