Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

So I’ve tackled one of the first films in my book of 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die.

While I wouldn’t describe Freaks as a horror movie in any real sense, they are some unsettling moments. The movie made the circuits as an exploitation film, something to ogle and stare at, like the sideshows it portrays.

Tod Browning directs, film lovers will know his name from the film classic Dracula, with Lugosi, a film on my rewatch list thanks to this handy little book.

The story is short and simple enough, much like the film itself, clocking in at just over 60 minutes, centering on a circus, a woman in the show, Cleopatra, learns that one of the… “Freaks” who is quite taken with her, Hans, has an inheritance coming his way, so she encourages his affections, going so far as to marry him – in the infamous wedding feast scene… “One of us! One of Us!”

But we and the rest of them learn that she is poisoning Hans, to kill him off so she can claim money for herself and her lover.

If you cross one of them, you cross all of them, as we’re told in the film’s opening crawl, and they take their revenge out on her.

The ‘freaks’ flaws may all be on the outside, by some definition, but not one character in the film is without them. Even one of the heroes, the clown, Phorso has flaws, though he’s accepting of everyone, not judging them by any standards, he tends to get caught up in the moment, and forgets things, like his date with a young lass named Venus.

If the circus they show is a microcosm for the world at large, it doesn’t speak well for us as people, flawed, judgmental, greedy, with only a few being truly good-hearted, and those who take out vengeance on others they feel deserve it.

The idea of vengeance is not one that appeals to me, I can understand the motivation for it, but it’s not something I’ve ever felt I needed. Saying that, I will also admit that Cleopatra gets her comeuppance, and it is a well-deserved fate.

The sequence in the rain storm and the mud is the one that I found most unnerving, watching as they start to hunt down Cleopatra and her lover who is exchanging blows with Phorso.

There were some things that will stay with me for some time to come, even though I had seen pics of some of the people in it before, seeing them in motion brings a whole new life to them, and the Living Torso, and the Half-Man stand out for me.

For all that, the film kind of defies categorization, it’s not a horror, it’s not a drama, it’s not a love story, it’s not a revenge film, though there are elements of all. There are moments that are uncomfortable to watch, and there are moments that are filled with joy. It’s a slice of life film, of an entertainment form that used to be a tradition, long lost now thankfully, that of the sideshow.

I’m very glad to say that I have finally seen this film, and look forward to discovering other films I should have seen a long time ago.

Have you seen it? If so, share your thoughts!


3 Comments Add yours

  1. porovitch says:

    My sixth grade class got to see this movie; it would have been about 1972. An inconceivable thing now….think of the lawsuits! The projector cart was wheeled in and tinkered with and the lights turned off. We sat, steeled for whatever condescending filmstrip was being trotted out (fire safety, avoiding drug use, bleach is not good to drink, whatever…)

    Wow. šŸ˜€ Were we ever a happy bunch of kids! I vividly remember the scene where the gentleman with no arms or legs opened a tobacco pouch, rolled a cigarette, got a match out of a box, lit it, and then smoked. Wow. WTF!?!?!?

    The end, with Cleopatra changed, was unsophisticated enough by our (early seventies!) expectations to come off as a bit of a silly letdown – especially after a pursuit through mud and darkness by (to use the older, less considerate words) pinheads, Siamese twins, a guy who was ONLY HALF THERE, a guy with no arms or legs, various midgets and dwarves….every one with fell intent. All moving pretty damn quickly! Jeez!

    As an adult, I appreciate the darkness of the intent, and find it easier to forgive the fakey feathers. I will always be grateful to Browning and to the actors for this movie. It is just what a statistically average 11 or 12 year old can appreciate – a clear look at stuff that’s so unusual it’s a bit horrifying.

    It is also a tribute to the best bits of humanity. We get to see triumph over environmental, mechanical and mental challenges that range from mild to impossible, made possible with ingenuity, love, willpower, physical and spiritual strength.

    We were treated to this a few days before school was out for the summer. From a perspective of this distance, I think the teachers may have wanted some revenge of their own…on our very last day in the small suburban elementary school where most of us had been since first grade, the alpha teacher announced we were the WORST bunch of kids she had ever had the misfortune to teach. She also said good riddance. I’m just sayin’.

  2. job says:

    Yes, the term “exploitation” (take in mind that every single soul part of this movie was, is, one big community filled with gut and love) is a mirror to the obsessive nature that lingers in the assumed crowd of “normal” people, so one can see, indeed it radiates timeless love and after having paid for a ticket, having seen it all, one can focus on the normality of life, and the social struggles that seems to be absent within such a willing “circus” of “freaks”. Love. Period.

  3. Julie Franklin says:

    I watched the movie for the first time only because I watched a show that was saying how controversial and horrible it was and it was banned in many places. Interested, I hunted for it ( sadly this was before computer access). I finally found it and sat silent and still from beginning to end. I cheered for the freaks. Cleo got what she deserved. And not once was I repulsed. They played roles just like any other actor and they were all excellent actors and actresses. I was impressed by the talent. To me the moral was don’t mess with a tight group of friends or family cause if u do u will pay. I loved it and tell all I can to see at least once( I’ve seen 4 or 5 times so far).

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