Info: This review was originally written on 11/29/2017. Also, I embedded the full movie on YouTube.
Freaks depicts the lives of several sideshow performers with abnormalities – hence, the derogative word “freaks”. At its core, it is a drama about a beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra taking advantage of a midget (Hans), because of his wealthy background. However, he soon discovers that she wants to lethally poison him, therefore betraying the familial bond of the circus performers. The movie ends both with a shot of the now disfigured trapeze artist (“The Human Duck”) and with a happier scene in which Hans is reunified with his former fiancé.
WHAT I LIKE
Technically, the movie is very beautifully shot. Due to its age and its controversial history, most copies of the film have very low-quality picture and sound. Music is used very efficiently, e.g. circus music in some scenes, but often the lack of music rather contributes to the eeriness of the atmosphere. Also, for today’s viewers, the washed out, black-and-white images really delivers in terms of obscurity.
The cast was rather controversial at the time – and to a certain extent it still is. Director Todd Browning [Dracula, 1931; The Unknown, 1927] gathered an ensemble cast of social misfits who were already performing in circuses: people with microencephaly, people lacking various limbs, midgets etc. The movie does a great job in portraying these social outcasts in daily situations, like smoking, eating, and even dating. Thus, the atmosphere of living in a traveling circus at the time is convincing. Also, the performances of some actors were very memorable, especially of the midget couple (played by a real-life brother and sister).
The characters are presented with all the faults and flaws every human being has. Therefore, the movie never patronizes or glamorizes the group of social “freaks”, but rather shows their most humane feelings: love, anger, envy, and humor. In portraying most characters three-dimensional, the viewer is never spoon-fed the central message, what it means to be human. Although, in the end the antagonists Cleopatra and her secret lover Hercules are themselves dehumanized and made social outcasts. This emphasizes that what it means to be human is not based on outer appearances, but rather on moral decision-making.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE
Historically speaking, the movie had a troubled premiere, with approximately 30 minutes being cut. Even the ending was starkly debated, eventually cut, and given a much happier tone. Most of the cut scenes are considered lost, therefore it should come as no surprise, that sometimes the movie lacks cohesion. Several subplots are introduced, that are never developed further, and do not contribute anything to the plot. Granted, most of the scenes do contribute to the overall atmosphere – however, it does break the viewing flow.
Though not as controversial as in the 1930s, the content is still very problematic. People with disabilities are portrayed as social misfits and the ending revolves around these people avenging one of their own. It was a deliberate creative decision to draw attention to their way of living, which is why some people claim it would exploit their obvious shortcoming. However, I do feel that, it was not intentional to use shocking imagery for financial reasons, especially considering the overall message the movie tries to convey (also considering Tod Browning’s backstory at a traveling circus).
WHY IT MATTERS
The introduction reads: “In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.” Freaks openly plays with these social stereotypes, e.g. when the “pinheads” meet the two men in the woods. Yet, the movie never spills out, what one should think about these characters. Involving the viewers in this decision-making about what is or should be morally correct was an achievement of this era in cinema. Just like M  asks the viewers directly whether a murderer unable to control his actions should be killed, Freaks asks the viewers what it means to be human, and whether a perceived normative idea should be used to oppress minorities. Combined with probably the most daring vision of the old Hollywood directors, the introduction’s statement is truly correct: “Never again will such a story be filmed”.
A very haunting scene – in every sense of the word – is “The Wedding Feast”, where because of her wedding with Hans, Cleopatra breaks the initiation ceremony. Clearly, she does not want to be part of a group of “freaks”, mocking the people at the table and driving them away; just moments, after the viewer himself/herself experienced a strong friendly or even familial bond between the characters. I would claim, this scene encaptures the spirit of the movie perfectly.
Rightfully considered as standing alone in a subgenre of one, Freaks has well-balanced characters, an engaging atmosphere, and a controversial yet important message, that still holds up. Historically condemned and met with lackluster contemporary reception, Freaks is now considered culturally and aesthetically important – for several reasons, ranging from the daring vision of its director, to the unsettling plot, making the viewer confront his/her own stereotypes.
– The on-screen romance between Hans and Frieda was very subdued because the roles were being played by real-life brother and sister Harry Earles and Daisy Earles.
– In some states of the United States, it is still technically forbidden to screen the film, because the laws were never officially repealed. Also, this movie was originally bann
ed in Australia and it was banned for 30 years in the UK, which is a record.
– The film initially ran over 90 minutes but was severely truncated following the horrific reactions it provoked. That extra footage is now presumed lost.
– A woman who attended a 1932 test screening for the film claimed later that she suffered a miscarriage resulting from the film’s shocking nature, and threatened to sue MGM.
– Director Tod Browning worked at a circus in his youth, both as a clown and a contortionist. His familiarity with circus folk inspired him to create this film.