I loved carnivals growing up, our local one sucked, but I always awaited the big ones that would come to town, and I’m not talking about the mass produced circus crap that you see today!
Written By: Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Charles MacArthur & Edgar Allan Woolf
Directed By: Tod Browning
Freaks is a film that could never be pulled off today in the politically correct age. It isn’t a film that is demeaning to the “freaks” in any way, but people nowadays would label it as such. Rather, Freaks is very heartfelt and sympathetic towards the Carnival folk while at the same time stressing that even though they are unique they are human just the same as you or I. That sameness is the most horrifying aspect of Freaks, because they go through the same routines regular people do, but because of their afflictions they do so in unsettling ways. The Carnival people aren’t disgusting at all, they only become disgusting after they finish with Cleopatra, because their actions towards her reveal the evil nature of humanity that overrides whatever physical maladies they may bare. Freaks sets you up for a course wherein you feel complete sympathy for the Carnies, and then it rips that sympathy away from you through the vile actions of the Carnies and the ultimate cruel fate of Cleopatra. Where once there was sympathy there is now only revulsion and that is why Freaks is not a film to be taken at face value, it is highly complex.
The acting in Freaks is interesting to say the least, because there aren’t many actual actors. Sometimes the fact that you are watching real live Carnival performers and not actors comes across in their delivery, but I’ve always been a fan of more naturalistic performances so their realness was never a problem for me. Their realness does lend the film an incredible amount of creepiness, because even though it strives to present the Carnies as the real people they are, you are still going to be creeped out by a man with no arms and legs crawling through the mud while holding a knife in between his teeth. That creepiness is what makes Freaks a horror film, that and the ultimate fate of Cleopatra. Outside of those two things Freaks is a standard intolerance/drama tale. But, the Carnies are who they are and the movie makes full use of their bodily shapes and conditions.
Freaks was churning along as a near perfect movie, and if it had ended with the fade back to real time it would have stayed near perfect. But, it didn’t end there, and the final scene between Hans and Frieda is very tacked on and too much of a happy ending for a film that screamed for a horrendous ending. That’s my only complaint with Freaks, because otherwise I found it to be a stellar picture.
Tod Browning made horror films in an age where Universal had come to dominate the horror landscape, or was just about to as the case may be. Browning is a fantastic director, he understood the need to focus on the human element to create true horror and how to move the camera so as to accentuate the mundane and the truly creepy. It is very sad that he is a man that has been all but forgotten in the Universal horror wave. I’d argue that Freaks is his masterpiece, and it is a film that any true horror fan needs to see. Freaks may be the title, but after a few minutes with this film you should realize that you are essentially looking into a mirror at the same problems and emotions of normal people displayed by the unique. Freaks is a movie long forgotten, but also a classic that will never be replicated.