Dir. by Tod Browning - 1 hr. 4 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I had heard of "Freaks" before, and decided to record it when it popped up on TV not too long ago. I figured it would be good for a few laughs and maybe some decent surrealism, and not much more. Instead, I stumbled across one of the most unsettling, emotionally wrenching, and just plain greatest films I've ever seen.
A sideshow barker is leading an audience on a tour of curiosities, and introduces the drawing point: a woman who had been a beautiful trapeze artist, but now was reduced to freaking people out in a box. We don't see her, but the barker promises to tell the story of how this woman got this way. In a circus, the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) notices that a dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles), has a crush on her, much to the consternation of Harry's fiancee, another dwarf named Frieda (Daisy Earles). Most of the other circus performers just laugh at Hans behind his back (and sometimes to his face); Cleopatra schemes with her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), conspire to swindle Hans out of his fortune through marriage.
The fact that pretty much the entire cast is comprised of circus freaks is something that you'll have to get used to very quickly. I didn't find myself repulsed or anything, but this is a film comprised of some very unusual visuals (especially if you're used to seeing movies populated with uber-handsome and super-sexy actors and actresses). But this isn't exactly gimmickry; maybe the advertising played things that way, but they're all still people, and even more importantly, they all have feelings and motivations. I'd be lying if I said that a big part of why I found myself so upset with the story was that I didn't like the notion of a normal person taking advantage of a dwarf. It wasn't so much that Hans was a dwarf, but "Freaks" gives off the impression very quickly that the circus sideshow performers were a very close knit group, partly out of necessity. They've banded together and figured out a way to get by, and even have a sense of normalcy, despite how things might look from the outside. There are a few scenes in "Freaks" that seem to exist only to show that many of these people were capable of living a day-to-day life (my favorites were the scene where an armless and legless man lights a cigarette by himself, and the scenes of a pair of conjoined twins being courted separately), and even if they're not relevant to the plot, humanizing these characters makes the developments of the plot resonate.
"Freaks" gets billed as a horror film, but to me, it plays more like a noir film. Even though it's under odd circumstances, the love triangle/murder for profit is something that Humphrey Bogart could have dug into without much trouble. And everyone more or less just goes about their business, except for the times where an outsider reminds them that they are outsiders (the best example of which was the "one of us" scene, where Cleopatra freaks out at being lumped in with these people, and goes on a drunk tirade that turns the entire circus against her). And seeing the hurt on the circus people's faces at having their hospitality rejected was one of the high points of the film; you knew Cleopatra was done for then and there. Another odd detail: I didn't notice a score of any kind during the film. There are certain aural ideas that anyone would have if you were doing a film in a circus; instead, it's just always silent except for when people talk to each other. That might not seem like much, but films rarely have an actual moment of silence. The soundtracks are crowded from beginning to end, and I didn't realize how much that's the case until I watched a film with no music. It's a vastly different experience.
I found myself completely drawn into "Freaks," feeling real disgust towards Cleopatra, shaking my head at Hans (but knowing how easy it would be to get drawn into Cleopatra's glamour, which wasn't something you'd see often in that milieu), feeling badly for Freida having to watch her love being snatched from her, and basically having to beg Cleopatra not to take advantage of Hans, like she was Dolly Parton singing "Jolene." And I felt real delight when the circus folk decided to take care of business on their own, and I laughed out loud when Cleopatra's fate is revealed at the end. Aside from that, "Freaks" isn't the kind of movie that just anyone would make. Every once in a while, you'll see an idea that has to happen without movie stars and all the usual trappings of a Hollywood movie, and that's this film. It's absolutely one of a kind.
5 / 5 - TV (HD)