Freaks is unlike any other film in history. Set in a traveling circus with a sideshow of “freaks,” the movie manages to be strangely moving and horrifying at the same time. The circus performers include a sword swallower, a fire eater, clowns, and aerialists. The freaks (mostly real sideshow performers with birth defects) include Siamese twins, half man/half woman, a human torso, a legless man, pin heads, and dwarves. The story has little persons Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) in love and expecting to marry. But Hans has a crush on acrobatic performer Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Behind his back Cleopatra makes merciless fun of Hans. She is carrying on with brutish strong man Hercules (Henry Viktor). When she discovers that Hans is due a big inheritance the lovers come up with a plan to steal his fortune. Cleopatra fakes romantic interest in Hans and he falls for her. Frieda tells Hans that Cleopatra is up to no good but he is too smitten to heed the warning.
When Cleopatra marries Hans a title card announcing “The Wedding Feast” appears as the circus performers and freaks celebrate. Amid the revelry Cleopatra slips something into Hans’ glass of wine. Little person Angeleno (Angelo Rossito) walks down the banquet table leading the chant “gooble, gooble, gobble, gobble. We accept you as one of us” and offers Cleopatra a giant glass. She yells “freaks!” and throws liquid all over him. As the freaks back away in disgust, Cleopatra asks Hans, “What are you going to do? Are you a man or a baby?” When the three sober up Hercules and Cleopatra try to apologize. Hans realizes now that he is the butt of a joke. But The Human Torso (Rardion , a.k.a. Prince Randian) and Angeleno see Hercules and Cleopatra plotting and understand there is something more sinister than a cruel joke afoot.
Soon the entire group of freaks and circus workers figure out what is going on. During a thunderstorm they exact a particularly fitting revenge on Hercules and Cleopatra. Even though footage of the complete original ending is missing, some of the shocking results are still apparent. It is clear that the freaks care deeply for each other and that they have a particular code of protection among them.
Some of the freak performers never appeared in another film but they had careers in sideshows. Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton had a successful vaudeville singing/dancing act and starred in their own feature Chained for Life (1952). Little person Angelo Rossito appeared in over 70 movies including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Although it may seem that carnivals exploited the freaks, many of them felt the carnival was their only way of making a living.
Like Dracula, directed by Tod Browning the previous year for Universal, Freaks is oddly static with very little camera movement. Browning never really adjusted to sound movies yet silent films often had sweeping camera movements. When sound movies began technicians insisted on having noisy cameras isolated in a sound proof booth. It’s possible that Browning was intimidated by the technology in its early days even though Rouben Mamoulian completely disregarded the technicians when he made his movie directing debut with Applause (1929). Mamoulian not only moved the camera but he shot on location as well.
Director Browning worked as a carnival entertainer before entering the movies. He directed Lon Chaney in some of his most memorable silent films including The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927). While characters in the Chaney films were often misshapen, the effect was due to grotesque makeup and the torturous contortions Chaney was willing to put his body through.
Freaks has a tacked on opening that pleas for understanding of the freaks while it also teases its surprise ending. In its initial release the film was reviled by critics and rejected by audiences. It was subject to massive censorship and largely forgotten for decades. The film’s early failure led to director Browning’s dwindling career. After Freaks he directed three more movies including The Devil-Doll (1935) and Mark of the Vampire (1936). By 1936 with studio executive Irving Thalberg’s untimely death, Browning lost his champion at MGM. Not long after Browning’s death in 1962, the counterculture and college students embraced Freaks and it is now holds its rightful place as a classic of the horror genre.
- Commentary by David J. Skal, author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre
- 64-minute documentary Freaks: Sideshow Cinema has interviews with Skal and carnival employees who worked with the “freaks” from the movie
- Special message (title crawl) that was added for theatrical reissue
- Three alternate endings including a description of the original ending
- Subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
DIR: Tod Browning. SCR: Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon suggested by Tod Robbins’ story “Spurs”. CIN: Merritt B. Gerstad. ED: Basil Wrangell (uncredited). CAST: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Francis O’ Connor, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Koo Koo, Prince Randian, Martha Morris, Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, Elizabeth Green, Angelo Rossito. B&W. Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1. Running Time: 62 min. MGM. DVD release Warner Home Video (www.wbshop.com).
The single disc release from Warner Home Video is reasonably priced but for about the same price you can get a two-disc set from Turner Classic Movies that comes under the title Greatest Classic Films Collection Horror which includes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), House of Wax (1953) and The Haunting (1963). The the two discs are double sided and all the extras from the original single disc releases are included. You can order from Amazon or directly from TCM (shop.tcm.com).