Wednesday, October 14, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: Love, Marriage and Retribution in Tod Browning's Freaks

There are some who say that Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic, Freaks, ruined his film career. After this controversial film was released, the once prolific filmmaker made only four more films from 1933 to 1939. He retired a few years later and became a recluse.

is a dwarf (or a little person, as might be said today) working in a circus. He is married to Freida, another little person, but the man is completely smitten with the show's trapeze artist, Cleopatra. He claims she is the "most beautiful big woman" he has ever seen. Cleopatra seems to initially enjoy Hans' attention, but she is intimate with the strongman, appropriately named Hercules, and the two of them are often mocking and laughing at the little man. The trapeze artist also likes the gifts she receives from Hans, but when she hears about his inheritance (something he has only told Freida), she's ready for marriage. Cleopatra will do whatever she can to get her hands on Hans' fortune. But when you cross a so-called "freak," you have ridiculed a family, who will demand vengeance.

sometimes plays like a drama. In fact, were it not for the vicious act of retribution, it would likely not be classified in the horror genre. Throughout the film, Browning presents subplots concerning members of the sideshow. The Bearded Lady is an expectant mother, giving birth to her child during the course of the film, with the Human Skeleton the proud father. Siamese twins Violet and Daisy, joined at the hip, deal with married life, or at least Daisy does. Her stuttering husband, Roscoe, is constantly berating Violet for butting into their private affairs. In a rather humorous scene, Violet receives a gentleman caller, Mr. Rogers, who asks her to marry him. Violet accepts, and Roscoe and the new husband-to-be express an interest in hoping to see each other in the future.

One has to wonder, however, who the titular "freaks" are. The sideshow performers may be abnormal by society's standards, but when they make the majority of the cast, they are the norm in their own society. Browning presents them as what they truly are: real people. They fall in love, they marry, they have children, they laugh and enjoy one another's company and occasionally argue. There are only a handful of characters who are not "freaks," at least not as defined by the traveling circus. Nevertheless, these characters
are the freaks; they are the ones who are different from all the others. And with the exception of Phroso (the clown) and Venus (who are both considerate persons), they are cruel and unlikeable, taunting Hans in more than one instance. Cleopatra and Hercules, in particular, are reprehensible. During the wedding feast, the sideshow performers offer a chant for Cleopatra to show she is accepted ("One of us!" -- an infamous scene often parodied or referenced), and the woman is unable to hide her contempt for them, screaming "You freaks!"

The identity of the "freaks" is the essence of Browning's film. Most film audiences will cringe from what isn't considered "normal." It's not that the viewers would necessarily consider the freaks inhuman, but they would have no way to relate to them. In
Freaks, Browning helps them do just that. The sideshow performers are given all of the human elements. They set a standard for a new normal. Cleopatra and Hercules, with all of their wicked behavior, are everything that the sideshow performers are not. They are the freaks.

The original cut of Browning's
Freaks was 90 minutes, but due to poor test screenings, nearly 30 minutes was cut from the film. Additionally, the ending was initially much more ferocious and was consequently altered. Regardless, the film was a source of controversy, and it fell by the wayside for 30 years (during which time it was banned in the U.K.). In the 1960s, Freaks was unearthed and quickly rose to cult status. Browning's movie is decidedly provocative, but it's also vibrant in character, a portrayal of a curious family filled with fascinating individuals. Perhaps the general public would characterize them as ugly, but it's the "beautiful" that truly exposes their ugly side.


  1. Sark, this is a very perceptive review of Browning’s best film. You’re right, it’s not a horror film—but I’m still filled with dread every time I watch it. That dread comes from knowing where the plot is headed without being able to do anything to stop it. It doesn’t take long to figure out Browning’s point, which—as you pointed out—is that the “freaks” of the title are really the normal-looking people. With that in mind, it’s hard to watch the emotional cruelty inflicted on the smitten Hans. The horrific climax is actually something of a release, though it’s certainly cruel, too, in its own right. This is one of those films that took me years to see (uh, the local TV stations sure weren’t going to show it). But when I finally did see it, FREAKS did not disappoint. Thanks for selecting this unusual film!

  2. Sark, you are a wonderful writer. Have you ever thought of writing a book?

  3. Thanks for the compliments, Rick and Dawn! Dawn, I think my writing is too pedestrian for a full length book. Plus, I write at too slow a pace. If I started one now, you wouldn't see it for another 20 years!

  4. Sark, this is a great review. I agree with Rick and Dawn in saying you are a wonderful writer. I will be looking for a book by you in the near future. I have seen this movie only once. Your post gave me a new viewpoint of the movie. When I watched it, I found it to be a very disturbing movie. Now that I have read your excellent post, I would like to see it again from your perspective.

  5. This is an excellent analysis of a truly unique film. It is extraordinary to learn this was released in the early 1930s. To say that it was unlike any other work of its time seems like such an understatement. "Freaks" is mesmerizing and your analysis pays it the homage it deserves. Well done, Sark!

  6. As always, wonderful article. I've seen this movie many times and am always interested, horrified and on the verge of tears at times. I have a question. Somewhere in the movie, Phroso the clown is talking to Venus, and he says something like "You should have caught me before my operation." I have never been able to figure that out. Any idea?

  7. Fantastic piece! I found out about this movie about 10 years ago when I saw Sideshow on Broadway. It was a musical about Daisy and Violet Hilton and it includes an appearance by Browning near the end offering them roles in his new movie. Unfortunately, Sideshow like Freaks is not for a mainstream crowd, so it closed within a year. But, for those of us open to various forms of stortelling, it's great someone dares to be different. Great job capturing the spirit of this unsual movie.

  8. Again, thank you all for your sweet comments. Becky, that is a great question! I don't know to what Phroso is referring. He makes it seem as if the "operation" is preventing him from being with Venus. Is that the impression you got? Yet another dimension to a beautiful, multi-layered film!