The Best Movie Critic + review

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Freaks

Justin here. Today we’ll be looking at Tod Browning’s lost masterpiece, Freaks.

The connection between humor and horror has always interested me a great deal. Jokes and scary stories work in the same way: you go along one way for long enough being lulled into comfort by the story, and then the punch line happens, turning you around the other way. It’s what makes a movie scary when you realize that Freddy Krueger is in your dream, and what makes a joke funny when you have to think about a bunch of aristocrats doing unspeakable things.

Tod Browning, the director of Freaks and of Dracula before that, employs this convention both on the horror and humor fronts. He begins manipulating our expectations even before the movie begins.

Freaks notoriously uses actual living circus side-show “freaks” in the movie. This just wouldn’t fly today. The “freaks” Browning filmed would now be called disabled or impaired in some way. The cast is comprised of several little people, a band of microcephalics (called “pin heads” in 1932,) two women without arms, one man without legs, one man who only has a torso, conjoined twins, a bearded lady and more. I’m not going to get into whether or not using living “freaks” was moral or not or anything else. Browning, for better or worse, captures popular sentiment about a controversial issue at a particular time. This point of view still has value in the same way that anyone who is serious about film needs to watch Birth of a Nation, while keeping in mind that D.W. Griffith was a flaming racist.

The reason why people would buy tickets to Freaks would surely be to see the “freaks.” The first thing we see when the movie begins is a barker enticing circus-goers to come in and see the scariest, weirdest “freak” of them all. This is that “freak’s” story, and the punch line to the movie that is equal parts shock and hilarity.

People talk about EC comics as having a lot of influence on these types of movies. This movie pre-dates Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror by about 20 years, but it is the perfect embodiment of the EC sensibility. People neglect to mention that in addition to being gory, gruesome, and graphic, the EC horror stories were also all morality plays. There is always a lesson to be learned, the bad guy never wins, and things are generally set right in the end. Freaks tells the same kind of story. From the beginning, it’s apparent that Browning has great love for these people and wants to portray them like you would any normal person. The trade off is that while the “freaks” aren’t played as normal, but rather human – they are subject to love, hate, jealousy, and revenge. While I’m certainly not for vilifying those with physical or mental disability, I think that our compulsion to be politically correct and show the disabled as characters that are always good, we aren’t honoring them as complex human beings. Freaks does this quite well. The only other movie I can think of that does is My Left Foot. (ed. note: The main character there has cerebral palsy and is also a misanthropic, womanizing asshole. - Miranda)

The first big twist on our expectations is that the “normal” people in the circus troupe are the ugliest. With the exception of the obligatory lovers Venus and the clown Phroso are the “ugly” ones, they tease and demean the “freaks.” Soon enough, the circus’ pretty woman, Cleopatra discovers that Hans, a little person, is very wealthy. She naturally decides to marry him and kill him for his fortune with the help of strong man Hercules. With the plot established, Browning takes his time letting all the different “freaks" develop as characters and show their stuff. Some of these parts are really funny- the bearded lady gives birth to a daughter, the conjoined twins have a bit of a B plot where they are both in relationships with different men, we see the man who only has a torso light a cigarette with a wooden match. Freaks is a tight 62 minutes, but it is packed with great little character moments that really make the somewhat derivative main story more impactful.

Like all good jokes and horror stories, the best part is the punch line. The circus has picked up to move to the next town, there’s a caravan of wagons pulled by horses. Lightning lights up the screen like a flash bulb, rain softens the ground to mud. The “freaks” crawl underneath the wagons to exact their revenge with knives in hand. It’s one of the few moments of film that actually frightens me. At the same time though, I’m cheering for the “freaks.”

I discovered Freaks when I was in college and on an EC horror binge. At the time, it was still a pretty hard movie to track down. Warner Brothers pulled Freaks from distribution after only a month in the wild because it was so scary and so controversial. To the best of my knowledge, it was never re-released in theaters. I believe there was only one generation of VHS copies made; it was on one of these that I first saw it. I had to request it through inter-library loan and wait patiently for a couple of weeks. Now it’s relatively easy to find. I think TCM released it as part of a 4 pack with some other horror classics, and the stand alone Warner DVD is great. In addition to the film, there is a commentary track and brief documentary by Browning historian David Skal, who was also responsible for some of the features on the James Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters, and for discovering the Spanish language version of Dracula. I got to meet Skal once, but it was before I had seen Freaks. It’s a great package and highly recommended. There is not, nor will there ever be another movie as weirdly compelling, troubling, and entertaining as Freaks.

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