When watching a film like Freaks, Tod Browning’s 1932 horror/melodrama, it’s impossible to simply let yourself become immersed in the film; you are constantly aware that you are viewing a little piece of film anti-history, an enigmatic diamond in the rough.
The film has a huge amount of notoriety surrounding it; accusations of it causing a woman to miscarry with fright, it’s disownment by MGM, the destruction of Browning’s career, it’s banning in Britain and its revival as a cult film in the 60s. Most bizarrely of all is that it is considered a horror film, when at most it could be considered to be partially a thriller.
Browning’s decision to cast genuine circus acts as the “freaks” rather than using make-up or other cinematic tricks is not only original, but it has never truly been repeated. The reason of course is because the “freaks” aren’t the villains, “normal” people are, when they disrespect those who are unlike them. This hardly makes for a gripping horror film, when essentially everyone who might be deemed frightening in their appearance is in fact lovely deep down (until offended and armed with a flick-knife or a Luger).
Indeed, the infamous sequence after the manipulative Cleopatra marries dwarf Hans for his fortune, when the other “freaks” chant to her “we accept her, one of us!” (see below), which is known to almost anyone with a halfway decent knowledge of film whether they have seen Freaks or not, is certainly unsettling, but is in theory a genuinely sweet human moment – the “freaks” believe she has truly fallen in love with one of them, and can thus understand them and be understood. The scene appears regularly in discussions and polls of cinema’s most disturbing sequences, but taken out of context it appears that it is the “freaks” who are the film’s antagonists, whereas it is in fact quite the contrary.
The film’s charm, that which it has, is in its demonstrations of these out of the ordinary people as perfectly capable of being normal. A man with no lower body runs faster than most on just his hands. A woman with no arms dines comfortably with her feet. A man with no arms or legs lights a cigarette completely unassisted, using only his face. The two dwarfs, Hans and Frieda, are quite sweet to each other until he falls for Cleopatra, like a real bickering couple (although their performances are mired in awkwardness given that the actors were siblings). Most entertaining of all are the Siamese twins, both attractive and utterly comfortable with their situation, and both embarking on perfectly happy relationships. As a wonderful little touch, each can feel it when the other is touched, be it just a tickle or indeed, as it is implied, something more sexual.
Undeniably the final sequence in which the villains are chased by the “freaks” through a rainstorm is quite thrilling (it is ironic that when the brute Hercules is stabbed in the leg, he is left too slow to outrun those he hardly feared beforehand); the shots of the various “freaks” emerging from the darkness underneath the circus caravans are the film’s most brilliantly composed. In addition, the final reveal that Cleopatra has, after these events, been made “one of them” is briefly disturbing, strangely because we know it not to be real.
But the film has considerable wit, and its treatment of its subject matter must be seen to be years ahead of its time. This is no simple “beauty is only skin deep” tale; if anything it is quite vicious in its critique of those who would offend those who are different, while it oozes praise for the camaraderie shown by those who are different for one another. The film is undeniably exploitative, but its heart is certainly in the right place. Like many of the actors featured in it, this film is undoubtedly a unique oddity.