Dir. Tod Browning (1932)
The classic film about circus freaks who are a family all their own.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
A movie that is at the same time sensitive and strangely heartwarming, Freaks is a classic that is as disturbing as it is fantastic. A trapeze artists (Cleopatra) seduces a little person (Hans) for the money he has inherited, and he falls for her despite all warnings to avoid getting sucked into her web. She is already involved with the circus strongman, so her interest in Hans is solely for the money. But the strongman is violent and nasty, Cleopatra isn’t much better, and alas, Hans is already engaged to be married to another little person (Frieda). Cleopatra is taking advantage of Hans because he’s a “freak,” and she views her status as “normal” to be greater than Hans’ simply because of his stature. This is the primary plot point behind the film, though its resolution will eventually involve all of the circus’ other residents. Of course, life outside the love triangle (rectangle? Quadrangle? Fuck if I know) is not all sweet for the freaks, as they are mistreated and reviled by the people in their community.
Truly the film with the most representation in history.
As with most older movies, the plot does drag a little, but the film is only an hour long so I think it’s perfectly manageable and the acting and directing is certainly competent for the age in which the film was made. The story has been seen in so many other forms of media since, but this one is the progenitor, the original. Tod Browning is a legend in the industry largely for Dracula, but Freaks is his lesser known and much more controversial film. Ironically, most of the protestation against the film was not for its treatment of the freaks themselves but because the freaks were too disturbing for “normal” folks. I mean, it was the 30’s, so that makes a certain amount of sense, but the film was inexplicably banned all across the world. In fact, some of the bans were never repealed, and it is still technically illegal to screen folks in several states even today. For a film to be banned simply because the cast is filled with circus folk is absurd.
The circus’ menagerie is not missing anything: we have a bearded lady, a pair of Siamese twins (or just one? A pair? I’m not sure how that works), two munchkins, a “pinhead”, a man with no legs and a woman who just has legs. It really is an interesting movie, the least of which because its difficult to talk about in 2022 without offending someone. The movie was so far ahead of its time in that it treated these folks with respect while acknowledging their draw simply because of their looks. Even today, these people are often seen as “freaks.” They’re people, and the film deals with this in a surprisingly delicate manner that made audiences of the day view themselves as “one of us”. Even though the main plot revolves around a love triangle between two little people and a regular-sized woman, it’s as devastatingly sad as it would be if it were with three regular-sized people. It’s also one of the greatest revenge stories in cinematic history. Browning’s ability to translate this story in a way that is still effective almost 100 years later is astounding.
Gooba Gobba motherfucker.
Who this movie is for: Fans of classic cinema, Horror fans looking for their history, Little people looking for more representation
Bottom Line: It’s a classic for a reason. It’s a heartbreaking story with a modern sensibility, and a morality tale with a historic twist. Freaks must be seen to be appreciated, and thankfully due to its age its readily available for free in numerous places. Every bit as important to modern horror as any of the classic Universal monster movies, Freaks is a must-see for any horror fans who seek a deeper appreciation of the history of the genre. You’ve seen this story dozens of times throughout history, this film will show you where all of those stories came from.