Before the terms "exploitation" "hardcore" or "video nasties" were even thought of…..there was "Freaks" which can qualify in all three categories. A film so offensive and repulsive to the censors and audience of its time that it was banned in many countries – including the U.K. – for thirty years ! A film that is still as far away from the concept of political correctness as it is possible to get. Even after all these years, it retains its ability to shock.
The screenplay was based on a short story by Tod Robbins called "Spurs". Robbins had been responsible for an earlier novel which had been adapted to a silent film called "The Unholy Three" in 1925 and this is where the genesis of "Freaks" really lies. "The Unholy Three" was the story of three circus performers who leave the circus to launch a crime wave. It was primarily a vehicle to showcase Lon Chaney’s incredible make-up talents. Known as "the man of 1000 faces" Chaney was a pioneering legend in the field of make-up effects and suffered incredible discomfort for his art, for example contorting his body under a 40lb rubber hump for his portrayal as Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". For "The Unholy Three", Chaney would assume two roles; Professor Echo the ventriloquist (though I’m not sure how well that worked in a silent film) and an elderly woman. The other members of the "Three" were Victor McLaglen as Hercules the strongman and Harry Earles, (who was billed as "The Twenty Inch Man", during his time in the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus referring to his height or lack thereof) as Tweedledee, the dwarf. The film became director Tod Browning’s first major success. Browning himself was uniquely qualified to direct this picture, having himself been a circus performer, both as a clown and a contortionist. He would re-team with Chaney in "London After Midnight" in 1925. This film is now sadly lost. Browning further consolidated his status in the field of horror films in 1930, when he directed Bela Lugosi in "Dracula" for Universal. "Dracula" was supposed to be another vehicle for Chaney, but unfortunately he succumbed to throat cancer.
Following the incredible success of the Universal horror movies, with both "Dracula" and "Frankestein" ushering in a golden age of horror films, MGM decided to grab a slice of the action and Tod Browning was brought on board to direct a radically different kind of horror film. Taking their cue from the monsters that brought Universal back from the brink of bankruptcy, they would have their own MonsterFest, and no elaborate make-up would be needed.
This would be an unflinching look at real deformities. For the most part, the "misshapen misfits" referred to on one of the opening captions would be played by real sideshow performers with only the last shot in the film needing any special effects or makeup. However cruel and harsh the title of the film and the mention of "misshapen misfits" seems , the film itself is completely sympathetic to the performers, and is told from their point of view. The audience is on the side of the "Freaks" from the opening , and it is the so-called "normals" who become the monsters, grotesque in their vanity and manipulative deeds. The role reversal between the freaks and the normals is consolidated by normal, domestic scenes like the birth of Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick – a REAL bearded lady)’s baby and other light comedy scenes involving the problems of being married to a Siamese Twin who empathises with her sister (Daisy and Violet Hilton, cojoined twins).
The film opens with a pre-title"special message" in the form of a series of captions that "prepare the audience" for the "highly unusual production" to follow and gives a little background on, and I quote, "The misshapen misfits who have altered the world’s course: Goliath, Caliban, Frankenstein, Gloucester, Tom Thumb and Kaiser Willhelm". I don’t know exactly how much altering of the world’s course the fictional ones mentioned here actually did, but the Kaiser did his fair share. We are reminded, albeit in a patronising tone, that "The majority of freaks themselves are endowed with normal thought and emotions". It seems a little insensitive that we’re reminded of this in the same caption that refers to them as "freaks". Maybe it was a sign of the times. Further trampling on these "normal thoughts and emotions" is the caption which follows: "Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world". Good grief !
A hint of what is to come is offered as the captions come to a close – "offend one – offend them all !"
The film opens properly with a carnival barker attracting curious customers to his sideshow. "She was once beautiful, the peacock of the air". As his audience looks at something off-camera, we see their looks of horror and dissolve to a flashback, where the rest of the film’s narrative is told.
In a circus, the tall, blonde, statuesque, trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is preparing for her entrance, watched by an awestruck and love smitten Hans, the midget (Harry Earles, re-teaming with Browning) who declares that "She is the most beautiful big woman I’ve ever seen". I’m sure he meant it as a compliment. However, he says this while standing next to his fiancé, Frieda the midget horse rider (Daisy Earles) If their on-screen engagement seems a bit tepid, I should point out that Harry & Daisy were actually brother & sister. is understandably unhappy, especially when Cleopatra openly flirts with Hans, allowing her stage costume cape to slip from her shoulders to the ground. He immediately scurries over to help her, but of course can’t put it back on her shoulders unless she crouches. This scene is well played by all three performers. Cleo has a spiteful, patronising edge. Hans is virtually her lapdog, oblivious to her cruelty and to the hurt which is all too obvious in Frieda’s eyes.
"Normal"society’s hostility towards the unusual is further reinforced in the next scene, where an outraged groundskeeper has reported the presence of trespassing freaks and monsters to the landowner, (a cameo by Tod Browing) who allows them to stay, being the voice of reason. In gratitude, their chaperone, Madame Tetrollini is prone to making heavy handed statements like "God looks after all his children" while looking skyward. This is also where we see some more of the cast members, particularly Johnny Eck "the half boy" being born without the lower half of his body, and having to use his hands as feet. The only films he made after "Freaks" were uncredited in costume as a bird-creature in a few of the Johnny Weissmuller "Tarzan" films. Also in this scene are Elvira & Jenny Lee Snow (known as "The Pinhead Twins") and Randian, the living torso – a man born without arms or legs, but fully capable of moving around by rolling & squirming, hence his occasional billing as "The Caterpillar Man". Incredibly, he was also able to shave, light his own cigarettes as shown in a later scene, and paint. We are also introduced to Joephine/Joseph half man, half woman. He/she claimed to be a hermaphrodite, but this was never proved.
Cleopatra begins to borrow money from an eager to please Hans, who is only to happy to lend it. Meanwhile in the land of normality, Hercules the Strongman (Henry Victor) throws his girlfriend out during an argument. Victor was an actor, not a circus performer and it shows – Hercules is the least muscular looking strongman in movie history. The girl, Venus (Leila Hyams) seeks solace & sympathy with Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford).
Hercules and Cleopatra begin a relationship almost immediately, while an unknowing Hans is continually plying Cleopatra with expensive gifts and an unending supply of money. However, the rest of the freaks are wise to what’s going on and can often be seen peering in through the window, or watching in silence from under the caravan. One of the stories surrounding the making of the film is that Ranidan developed a habit of lurking in dark corners and scaring unwary passers-by with a blood curdling scream !
Eventually, Hans & Frieda break off their engagement, causing Frieda to confront Cleopatra and accuse her of being after Hans’ money. It seems he has inheited a considerable fortune. Hercules is hiding the back of the caravan and hears everything. He and Cleopatra begin to plot.
The next scene is titled "The Wedding Feast" and is where the film kicks in to a higher gear. Now married, Hans & Cleopatra are having a party with the rest of the freaks as guests, along with Hercules. She begins to poison Hans by slipping some powder in his wine. The freaks decide to accept her in to their closed fraternity and propose a loving cup, which they fill with wine and pass around the table while chanting "Gooble gabble one of us. We accept her. One of us". Cleopatra has had too much to drink and begins to let her real feelings of repulsion show. She humiliates her new husband by asking if he’s a man or a baby and throws the wine at the guests screaming "You filth – make me one of you, will you" while Hercules laughingly scatters them in all directions.
When they’re both sober, Cleopatra and Hercules both apologise, but Hans is now beginning to show the effects of the poison he’s been administered. He collapses, watched through the window by one of the freaks. Following a doctor’s confirmation of poisoning, Venus tells Hercules that she will go to the police unless he and Cleopatra turn themselves in and confess. That same evening, Cleopatra continues with the slow poisoning under the guise of giving Hans the antidote, but he knows what’s happening and spits the poison out when she’s not looking. As she leaves for the performance, Hans says ominously "I’ll never forget what you are doing for me". On her way from the caravan, she is aware that she is being watched from seemingly every dark corner by the silent, vengeful freaks. They’re under the wagons, behind wheels, inbetween steps. The threat, though subtle, is all too obvious and un-nerving.
A storm hits as the caravan packs up and moves on. Cleopatra tries to give Hans another dose of poison, but is initial resistance and then refusal in front of a couple of visitors who are reluctant to be shooed away shows her the game is up. Johnny Eck has a gun, another dwarf has a switchblade. As the caravan moves on, Hercules attacks Venus in an attempt to silence her for good. Phroso the clown rescues her and has a pretty intense fight in the wagon’s kitchen involving, at one point Phroso’s face being scalded on the stove. Phroso is hopelessly outmatched physically though, but is saved when one of the freaks expertly throws a knife, which lodges in Hercules’s arm. The caravan crashes and becomes stuck in a mudslide.
Both Hercules and Cleopatra try to escape, and this is where the film is at its most disturbing, as we see the freaks converge relentlessly on them, stalking, crawling and slithering through the mud. Ranidan has a knife in his mouth, but I’m not sure exactly what he hopes to do with it. They trap Hercules under the carriage. Meanwhile, Cleopatra is running for her life with the freaks in close pursuit, and this is where we fade back to the present day, where the attraction on display is Cleopatra – now a chicken woman, no legs, horribly disfigured and scarred. Now, she truly IS "one of them".
In an epilogue, Frieda, Venus and Phroso visit Hans many years later. Hans is now in shameful exile in his palatial mansion which was apparently part of his inheritance. The film fades out with a glimmer of hope that he and Frieda might rekindle their relationship.
The obvious problems of the entire production being studio bound and the technical limitations of the day aside, how does the film stand up ? Well, it’s an incredibly tight and fast paced 60 minutes with not a second of its running time wasted. The last few scenes don’t stand up to close inspection or logical analysis unfortunately. There were scenes filmed that implied strongly that the revenge taken on Hercules was that the freaks castrated him, but these scenes are no longer in the film. It seems incredible that the physically handicapped freaks would actually catch up to the more able-bodied Cleopatra, let alone have the skill to turn her into the nightmarish chicken-creature we see, which would involve double amputation – and for her to survive. But, it’s a haunting visual image. The makeup concept was one that Browning and Lon Chaney had experimented with for an earlier film, which was never made.
On its release, Freaks quickly gained notoriety and was heavily censored before being banned outright in many countries. During the ban, it was shown on an exploitation roadshow under various other titles including "Forbidden Love" and "Nature’s Mistakes" but the film didn’t resurface in the UK until 1963 and wasn’t shown on television until the mid eighties when Channel 4 broadcast it as part of a banned movies season. Though now it’s readily available on dvd and surfaces regularly on satellite tv. Maybe it’s testimony to its remaining impact that 75 years on, it’s still rated 15.
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