Freaks (1932)
By: Mark Nichols on October 16, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Warner Video (Australia). Region 2, 4 & 5. PAL. 1.37:1 English DD 1.0. English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Greek, Portugese, Czech, Hungarian, Dutch, Arabic, Bulgarian Subtitles. 59 minutes
The Movie
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles
Screenplay: Tod Robbins Tagline: Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET?
Country: USA
Loosely based on the short story "Spurs" by Todd Robbins, Freaks centres around a circus troupe of misshapen, physically challenged performers (or 'Freaks' as they were sensitively called before political correctness).

Hans (Harry Earles) is a midget who falls in love with 'normal' sized Cleopatra, Queen of the Trapeze (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra finds this amusing and feigns interest in him, much to the chagrin of his current midget girlfriend Frieda (his real-life sister Daisy Earles). What Hans does not know however is that Cleopatra has started a passionate affair with circus Strong-Man 'Hercules' (Henry Victor), but when Cleopatra learns that Hans has a large inheritance, she conspires with Hercules to marry and then poison him to inherit it. The other Freaks inevitably find this out, and as is said in the film: "Offend one and you offend them all!"

During the film we meet various real life circus performers who mainly perform mundane duties such as putting on make up, eating meals, or drinking, while banal dialogue is spoken so we can gawk at their physical handicaps. Their acting is not very good and sometimes entire sentences are inaudible. One example shows Prince Randian (who has no arms or legs) roll a cigarette then light it with his mouth. While he does this, a 'normal' performer gabs inane dialogue as we watch. For years I had wondered what Randian says at the end of the scene. Thanks to subtitles on the DVD I have finally learnt that he exclaims "Can you do anything with your eyebrows?". Ahh, I can finally sleep at night! But hang on, what does that mean? Others in the Freaks entourage include Schlitze the Pinhead (who was actually male and wore a dress for ease of toilet needs); Zip and Pip, also pinheads (Jennie Lee and Elvira Snow); Koo Koo the Bird Girl, who was blind and had a skeletal disorder; Martha the Armless Wonder and Frances O'Connor (both minus arms); Daisy and Violet Hilton (twins conjoined at the base of the spine); Angelo Rossitto (a dwarf who went on to play 'Master Blaster' in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); The Living Skeleton (Peter Robinson); The Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick); The Stork Woman (Elizabeth Green); Josephine Joseph (half man/half woman) and Johnny Eck, who had no body below his ribcage.

The most famous (and quoted) scene takes place at the wedding feast in which Olga lets her true feelings for the Freaks be known, summing up the subtext of the story: a person's inner beauty cannot be judged by external appearances. The climactic clash between good and evil that takes place unfortunately lacks any dramatic music, which would have greatly added to the tension. Also, I'm not sure if seeing the limbless Prince Randian slowly shuffling towards me with a knife in his mouth would be particularly terrifying either!

The dénouement of the film is disappointing. It is obvious that Browning had the best intentions of bringing the ultimate final shock to his tale, but he was let down by the work of the make-up and costume department, sadly causing more giggles than screams. Regardless, it is easy to criticise this now in a more prosthetic / digitally aware age. This is a film that was made seventy-four years ago as at 2006 and can still hold its own.

Freaks was Tod Browning's follow up to the hugely successful Dracula with Bela Lugosi (1931). Faced with the challenge of making a film even scarier and shocking than this he chose Freaks which bought an untimely end to his career. Audiences found this film so shocking that MGM re-edited it numerous times with alternate endings, and it was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years.
A fantastic 1.37:1 transfer giving crisp, clear images.
A very slight 'crackle' sound of film magnetic tape can be heard and could have possibly been toned down in scenes with no dialogue, but this does not detract from the film.
Extra Features
Fascinating narration by David Skal, film historian. Particularly interesting if you have seen the film as many times as I have!

"Freaks The Sideshow Cinema" documentary about the stars of the film and anecdotes of things that occurred while film was being made. Very interesting.

Three alternate endings made for the film by MGM after initial test screenings did not go down well with audiences. David Skall introduces these and explains how and why they were done.
The Verdict
This is an amazing film starring real physically challenged circus performers from a bygone era of carnival history that will never be seen again. Browning gathered the largest collection of natures misfits ever seen on film, before or since, and it is well worth watching as a slice of classic horror cinema.
Movie Score
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