Freaks – **

Posted: May 27, 2014 in 1932, Drama, Horror, Thriller, USA, XX

Freaks is a black and white classic about a midget falling in love with a tall trapeze artist in the circus he also performs in (as a freak). He’s so smitten that he neglects his equally little fiancée and is unaware of the fact that all the taller woman wants, is his money. She plans to marry him and then get rid of him in order to obtain the fortune he’s apparently an heir to.

Billed as a horror movie, it’s much more a combination of a romantic drama, a murder thriller and – let’s be honest – a freak show. This movie dates from 1932 when deformed humans were showcased as a circus act. I’m sure a similar side-show would still attract crowds, but we live in political correct times so it’s not okay to laugh with disabled people. Or to be revolted by them. However, at the time of its release, this most likely was the only reason why people went to see it. And why it’s still popular now. I can’t imagine anyone releasing a similar movie nowadays, but it’s from the past, so it must be okay to watch it, right? Freaks is part of the 90th anniversary set of Warner Brothers, probably because of its ongoing popularity. It’s a curiosity, a very bizarre and unique movie, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s the kind of movie you ‘discover’ when you’re in college and friends organizes a weird movie night.

It isn’t even as disturbing as you may think. The ‘freaks’ are the good ones, so you feel empathy rather than fear. Sure, it’s quite weird to see a man without arms and legs crawling on the floor and lightning a cigarette without any help. Or to see an armless woman eat with her feet. But we had My Left Foot in the meantime and there are Hollywood celebrities with plastic surgery that are scarier than the characters in this movie. Most oddities are not that uncommon anymore. Stromae plays a half woman/half man in his Tous Les Memes video (maybe inspired by this movie?) and you see it on every gay pride. Swallowing a sword isn’t all that special either anymore. Neither are stutterers. The people with microcephaly (shrunk heads and hence undeveloped brains) are probably the freakiest, but all in all they are just different. Director Tod Browning managed to show these people with some kind of dignity and respect, by making the most attractive person in the movie a villain and by adding some humor here and there that isn’t all too harmful. When the future husbands of Siamese Twins meet for the first time and say ‘you should come over one evening’, it’s subtle rather than grotesque. The broken love element is also really strong. The little woman who sees her fiancé fall for a fraud is endearing. But the thriller element is a joke, especially since the opening scene kind of gives away what will happen in the end. The beautiful woman will become a freak herself, that’s a fact. So the only thrilling element is figuring out what kind of freak she will become. The answer however is an even bigger joke and totally ruins the experience. Watch it out of curiosity and then forget about it to rematch it again twenty years later.

  1. One reason Freaks is such an interesting example is that it was completely unsuccessful when it first came out. Audiences were horrified, critics panned it, and social organizations banned it. It could not even be shown in the UK for another 30 years. The studio cut 20 minutes out of it, scenes that are forever lost to us. It only made back half its production budget, and the failure killed the career of director Tod Browning, who had been so successful just a year before because of Dracula (with Bela Lugosi).

    But in the 1960s, what was left of Freaks began developing a cult following. Even hacked to pieces, it still has the power to frighten and fascinate current audiences.

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