While I was going through my Killer-Works files in search of previously posted reviews, I found seven additional reviews that never got posted on the website. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting these lost reviews of disturbing cinema here. We'll start with 1932's Freaks.
Freaks is a subversive film, even by today’s standards; so you can imagine the reaction of audiences, critics and media watchdog organizations back in 1932. The film was shelved by the studio and banned outright in some countries until the 1960s, when the cultural tone had shifted and the word “freak” became a badge of pride.
Based on the short story, “Spurs” (which is surprisingly more disturbing than the film), the film is set amidst the strange subculture of freaks working for a carnival. One of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles, who would later play a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz), is enamored with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a statuesque trapeze artist who finds him repulsive, but plays at loving him in order to get his money. Her plot to marry and then poison Hans is uncovered and both she and her strongman lover suffer the terrible and surreal wrath of Hans’ fellow sideshow performers.
Seeking to make his film as realistic as possible, Browning chose to cast actual sideshow performers. The conjoined twins, human torsos, pinheads and bearded ladies are all authentic. The viewer is left to wonder if Browning wanted to give work to performers who normally would never have been cast in a feature film or if it was instead a calculated act of exploitation. Throughout the film, the freaks are portrayed as sympathetic characters. Even the gruesome revenge scene doesn’t make them unsympathetic, given the circumstances. But the fact remains that, in our seemingly more “sensitive” culture, such a casting decision could never be made and these individuals would be left in the dark shadows of society, under the pretense of preserving their dignity.
The plot is a bit hackneyed and most of the freaks are not (to be brutally honest) very good actors; but Freaks has a place in cinematic history. Even after all these years, you can’t help but stare in wonder at people who are, in the most important ways, no different from yourself.