Aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) reacts to Half Boy (Johnny Eck) with poorly-contained revulsion.
"We didn't lie to you, folks. We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, shuddered at them. And yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be one as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves: Offend one, and you offend them all."
— the sideshow barker
The circus or midway sideshow has long been a surreal place of fascination and has many times been the backdrop against which scenarios of outright horror have played out. Director Tod Browning's FREAKS is perhaps the ur-example of the sub-genre, even some 86 years after its first screenings, but when looked at for what it actually is, calling it a "horror" film is something of a misnomer. It certainly contains plot points and imagery that are indeed horrific, but when it comes right down to it, the real meat of the story is about how families look out for one another, and woe betide them who fuck with said family. Justice is a stone-cold bitch, and few films get that point across more pointedly than this one.
The audience is taken along with a group of curiosity-seekers at a sideshow, where the sight of one of the living attractions elicits screams of abject horror from one of the onlookers. With the revulsion-inducing creature hidden from our view, the barker informs us that the horror before us now was once Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist known as "the queen of the air." The story of how Cleopatra ended up in her present sorry state is recounted in a feature-length flashback:
Cleopatra uses her womanly charms to beguile and marry Hans (Harry Earles), a dwarf who works in the same circus, and Hans is well-off thanks to a sizable inheritance. Though already engaged to the equally-diminutive Frieda (Daisy Earles), Hans is smitten by the big blonde, so he thoughtlessly casts aside the visibly heartbroken Frieda, while blinding himself to Cleopatra's interest in him being solely due to his money, plus the obvious fact that she's sexually involved with circus strong man Hercules (Henry Victor). Though she initially manages to hide her contempt for Hans and the rest of the members of the "freak" community at the circus, once the ring is on her finger, Cleopatra stands revealed as a loathsome cunt of the lowest order, completely dropping all pretense of love and openly mocking Hans and the other performers as she and Hercules continue their cavorting while simultaneously slowly poisoning Hans. The plan is to bump off Hans so Cleopatra will be the legal heir to his fortune and the illicit lovers can go their merry way with a cushion of sweet, sweet cash, but their contempt for the freaks does not allow them to account for the fact that the wronged family of freaks are not stupid — they are wise to the poisoning plot — nor are they to be trifled with, as the barker told us in no uncertain terms at the beginning of the narrative. It all comes to a head on a stormy night, with Cleopatra and Hercules squarely marked for hideous and ultra-personal retribution that they absolutely had coming...
There is no stronger force on this earth than a tight family.
Though the vengeance wreaked upon the evil lovers is certainly (and deservedly) horrible, especially for the cinema of its era, and the undeniable fact that one of the film's draws back in the days was the "thrill" of seeing "living, breathing monstrosities," to me FREAKS will always be a strong statement that no matter how bizarre it may seem to outsiders, one's family is the most important thing in the world, be they biological relatives or chosen, and they will always have your back, no matter what. I come from a highly-dysfunctional biological family, so I began piecing together a chosen family of fellow oddballs, outsiders, and outcasts, a group that has grown quite large and very tightly-enmeshed over the decades, and I would step in front of a bullet or happily serve a prison sentence in order to protect them, so dear are they to me. That sort of love and fraternity is what FREAKS communicated to me when I needed it most, and even when I saw it for the first time, I found nothing "freakish" about the sideshow performers in its story. What I saw in them was an embodiment of a loving and involved family, and they were easily the most "normal" people on display throughout. It's Cleopatra and Hercules who are the film's monsters, shamelessly personifying so-called humanity it is ugliest, most vile, and most offensively repellent.
For the unforgivable wrongs done, there can be no mercy nor escape...
The shames surrounding FREAKS are many, but let me cut to the most significant ones. Director Tod Browning was a talented director who had himself been a sideshow performer in various capacities during his youth, so when making FREAKS he brought a genuine understanding of and compassion for his subjects to the film, and that sympathy is quite evident. Browning made the film hot on the heels of his critical and box office success with DRACULA (1931), starring Bela Lugosi and one of the most important horror films (or films of any kind, for that matter) ever made, so when he made FREAKS, MGM was expecting a hit to rival DRACULA. What they did not expect was the very vocal public outcry over how allegedly repugnant and offensive the film was, and its upsetting of the tender sensibilities of the American moviegoing public proved to be one of the key factors pointed to when it came time for Hollywood to police itself with the instituting of the infamous Hays Code. As a result of the film's failure and immediate status as a celluloid pariah, Browning's career effectively came to a premature end, and more's the pity as the man was definitely a visionary. The other great tragedy of FREAKS is that in order to placate the torch-wielding public and hopefully see some sort of profit from its original release, the film was shorn of several scenes that reduced its running time from ninety minutes to a mere sixty-four, and that shortened re-release lost money anyway and the original full-length version is now considered lost forever. And, adding insult to injury, FREAKS was banned in the United Kingdom for over three decades, due to it being perceived as exploitative.
Now rightly hailed as a classic, FREAKS should be seen by all with an interest in film as an art form, and not just by those keen on horror cinema and its history. Even in its neutered version, FREAKS wields considerable power, and it boggles the mind that anyone at any time would ever deem it offensive or exploitative. There are few films that extol the bond that is family as effectively and as viscerally as Tod Browning's misunderstood, under-appreciated bastard child of a movie.
Poster from the original theatrical release.