“The Unenthusiastic Critic” is a special series in which my highly reluctant girlfriend “N.” joins me to watch classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. In a very special series within this very special series, N. has agreed to watch as many horror movies as we can fit in between now and All Saint’s Day. That N. really hates horror movies, is easily freaked out, and will almost certainly have nightmares all week long, makes her participation all the more admirable…and dumb…and potentially amusing.
Film: Freaks (1932). Directed by Tod Browning; written by William Goldbeck and Leon Gordon, based on a story by Tod Robbins. Starring Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, and Olga Baclanova.
Why I Chose It: Freaks is a fascinating film for many reasons, the most obvious of which is the fact that actual sideshow performers compose the majority of its cast members. Tod Browning (best known as the director of Dracula) had spent years traveling with circuses and carnivals in his youth—he had been both a barker and a performer, billing himself as a "Living Corpse" in an act that apparently required him to be buried alive—and so was drawing on both his personal experiences and his contacts in adapting Tod Robbins' revenge story "Spurs" for the big screen.
Freaks also came along at an interesting time. Talking pictures were still a relatively new thing, and dialogue was still a clunky novelty: like many films of the era Freaks could probably work almost as effectively—or more effectively—as a silent movie. More importantly, the Hays Production Code—designed to control the moral content of films—had just been adopted in 1930, and was not yet really being enforced, so Freaks has much darker and morally ambiguous (and sexually suggestive) content than we are accustomed to expecting from movies of this era.
The combination of cast and content made Freaks one of the most controversial movies ever made, and the controversy never really went away. MGM edited about half an hour of content (now lost) from the finished film, and tacked on a happy ending, but still Freaks was considered so grotesque that many cinemas wouldn't show it; MGM withdrew the film from distribution in less than a year, it was banned outright in many states and countries, and Browning's career was more or less destroyed. Freaks only resurfaced—and was reassessed—in the 1960s, and grew to attain cult status as a forgotten masterpiece of early cinema, and as one of the strangest and most memorable horror movies ever made.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: N. had seen certain scenes from Freaks before—in passing and on clip shows—including the famous wedding feast scene and bits of the ending. (It's possible that I intentionally showed her the feast scene at some point, in order to explain why I was prone to chanting "we accept her, one of us" whenever she adopted one of my geeky enthusiasms.) And what she had seen did, as intended, freak her out:
She: It freaked me out because I find the freaks creepy. They scare me.
Me: Well, that makes you a terrible person.
She: I know! And I'm uncomfortable talking about it because I don't even like saying the word "freaks." But I find them scary…and menacing.
How It Went: Less scary, more interesting.
Freaks begins by promising a horror movie: a carnival barker escorts some people through the sideshow, and stops outside one particular box. We don't see what is in the box, yet, but the barker tells how it was once a beautiful woman, who fell victim to the "code of the freaks."
The truth is, however, Freaks is only a horror movie for about five minutes of its short 62 minute running time. The rest of the film is—as one of MGM's taglines read at the time—“The Story of the Love Life of the Sideshow."
Little people Hans and Frieda are engaged to be married, but Hans is not even bothering to hide the fact that he is increasingly obsessed with trapeze-artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). "She's the most beautiful big woman I have ever seen," Hans tells his (obviously long-suffering) fiancée. (Lovers Hans and Frieda are played by real-life brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles, just in case Freaks needed another level of creepiness.)
Cleopatra is a terrible cock-tease to poor Hans—seemingly out of pure malice, at this point. The first thing Hans says to Cleo in the film is, "Are you laughing at me?", but he clearly wants to believe that someone like Cleo could be attracted to him. But Hans is hardly an innocent victim of her seduction. "Pervy little fucker, isn't he?" my girlfriend points out, as Hans clearly checks out Cleo's body from her waist-level.
Actually, none of the men in this movie come off very well. Hans is a lecherous tall-girl fetishist who treats Frieda like shit. Hercules (Henry Victor), the strongman, is a cruel and murderous thug working his way through the women of the circus: we see him drive off the kindly Venus (Leila Hyams) and move on to a secret affair with Cleo.
Venus, meanwhile, has rebounded into a relationship with a clown, Phroso (Wallace Ford). Phroso and Venus are supposed to be the good "norms" in the film—they're both kind to the "freaks"—but he's problematic as well: "You dames is all alike," he says to Venus, while comforting her. "Yer sharp-shootin', yer cheap, and how you squeal when you get what's comin' to ya."
("Great," N. says. "This is another winner in its treatment of women, I can tell.")
The healthiest and happiest people in the circus seem to be the "freaks." Besides Hans and Frieda, our first sight of the sideshow performers is of a group of them dancing and playing down by the river: they include Schlitze, a so-called "pinhead" (micro-encephalic), a "bird-girl" (Elizabeth Green), a legless "half-boy" (Johnny Eck), a limbless "living torso" (Prince Randian), and assorted others. Cleverly, Browning introduces us to them through the point of view of some normal humans who stumble on the group—one of them calls them "monsters"—but then has their guardian, Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), remind the men that these are mostly just children, playing in the sunshine.
While there is undoubtedly a large element of voyeurism and exploitation to Freaks—it is itself a freak show, of course, putting these people on display to shock and titillate us—what is remarkable about the film is how normal they quickly come to seem, and how Browning balances the sensationalism with the mundane realities of their lives.
Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet, for example (Daisy and Violet Hilton), are both getting married, and though Violet's fiance doesn't get along very well with Daisy, there is no real suggestion that this is a strange or difficult scenario. (There is one titillating moment, however, when Daisy's fiance kisses her, and Violet seems to take pleasure from the act.
Me: Is it a threesome if you make out with your wife and her conjoined sister is getting off on it?
Most of the sideshow performers are shown just going about their lives. (The Bearded Lady and the Living Skeleton have just had a baby, for example.) The strange and unusual are simply part of normal life here, and what would require extraordinary effort for us to imagine is just day-to-day necessity for the differently-abled. We see Johnny Eck propelling himself rapidly around the camp on his hands, we see characters eating with their feet, and we see the limbless "Living Torso" lighting a cigarette, with a match, using only his mouth. (Apparently, footage in which he also rolled the cigarette himself was cut from the movie.)
She: Man, you have to really want a cigarette.
Me: Well, they are addictive.
She: But how come the black man is the only freak without any lines?
Me: It's not racism: it's just that, with no hands, he always has something in his mouth.
We also see the community the freaks have formed, and how they look out for each other. Everyone else in the show has Cleo's number long before Hans does, for example, and we see them watching the situation develop. (When Hercules catches half-man, half-woman Josephine Joseph spying on him and Cleo, he punches him/her in the face.)
She: Did he punch the male side or the female side?
Me: I think he punched the male side. A gentleman never hits half a lady.
After Frieda lets slip that Hans has inherited a fortune—he's the rare carny midget with rich relatives, apparently—Cleo and Hercules form a plan: she will marry Hans, and then kill him for his money. Frieda—who just wants Hans to be happy—doesn't object, except to voice her certainty that Cleo will never make him happy. If this wasn't clear to Hans before, it certainly becomes clear at the wedding feast.
In easily the best (and most famous) scene of the movie, Browning builds the tension until it reaches a surreal crescendo: Cleo and Hercules, getting drunker and drunker, begin making out right at the table in front of the humiliated Hans, who sits fuming.
Me: Is it considered bad form to make out with your secret lover at your own wedding?
She: Open-mouthed? Definitely.
Frieda sees what is happening, but most of the sideshow performers don't notice; they are drinking and laughing and having a great time. Everyone is welcome in their community, and they are prepared to accept Cleo into their family as well. As a gesture of goodwill (and, obviously, some sort of traditional ritual of initiation), the sideshow performers begin chanting:
We accept her,
One of Us!
It's a sweet gesture—albeit an incredibly creepy one—and it keeps going and going, and Cleo's face grows more and more horrified at the idea that she could ever be considered one of them. Finally, she explodes, and shows her true colors:
"Freaks!" she screams. "You filth, you make me want to puke!" The horror in the eyes of the sideshow performers is haunting in that scene—as in the shame of Hans, who Cleo and Hercules carry out on piggyback like a baby. In the next scene, Hans is a broken man, and actually apologizes to Cleo. "I only blame me," he says to his wife. "I should have known you would only laugh at me."
Unbeknownst to Hans, Cleo has also begun poisoning him: she didn't even wait for the wedding to be over. Hans collapses, and the lovers think they've won, but the other sideshow performers are onto them. Hans begins spitting out his "medicine," and he and his friends conspire a plan for revenge.
And now Freaks becomes the horror movie it was advertised to be. After spending the entire film showing us that the sideshow performers are normal people, Browning turns it around and has them become the monsters they've been called all along. Treat us like monsters, they seem to decide, we'll be monsters. On a pitch black night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, they get their revenge. First, Hans confronts Cleo with his posse at his side: Johnny Eck has a gun, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) has switchblade, and another dwarf…plays the flute. ("He's there for atmosphere," N. says.) They take the poison from her, and, in a marvellous sequence, all the collected freaks chase Cleo and Hercules through the rain.
The black-and-white cinematography is fantastic here. The shadows are so dark, and the freaks are crawling through the mud: their faces are so strange, and their silhouettes so unusual, it is often hard to tell just who or what is coming until a flash of lightning illuminates them. We are on their side, but these small, distorted figures swarming through the night are a terrifying nightmare .
Finally, in the final scene, we return to the carnival barker, who now shows us what has become of Cleo: she has been transformed into a freak herself. Specifically, she has been turned into a "duck lady"—she's been severed at the waist, her face and hands have been mutilated, she's covered in feathers, and she can apparently only speak in an awful quacking sound. This is the final horror, and—right on schedule–my girlfriend laughs. ("That's not even possible," she says.)
A brief epilogue shows Hans and Frieda reuniting, and suggests Hans never intended anything horrible to happen to Cleo. This was a late addition MGM added to try to make the film end on a more palatable note, and it seems phony. (In the earlier scenes, it was perfectly clear that Hans was complicit in getting revenge on Cleo for her actions.) In fact, Browning's original ending reportedly showed that both Cleo and Hercules had joined the freak show: she as the Duck Lady, and he as a castrato. Even without that stronger ending, however, the code of the freaks is perfectly clear: don't fuck with us.
She: That movie is weird.
Me: Whatever do you mean?
She: I'm sure a lot of this is a sign of the times, but the pacing is very strange, the dialogue is weird, and a lot of characters are introduced haphazardly. And that ending…
Me: What's wrong with the ending?
She: I mean, the bitch had it coming, but nobody can survive if you sew a giant chicken onto their body. And now she just clucks? What the hell?
Me: It's not entirely clear…
She: I mean, that would require seriously expert surgical skills, and most of them had feet for hands. So…I don't think it's feasible. Although that guy did roll a cigarette using just his mouth, so maybe he was up to turning a woman into a giant chicken. But there seem to be some very questionable and complicated medical procedures happening there.
Me: So, other than that, what did you think? It didn't freak you out like you were expecting?
She: No, except for the swarming hordes of freaks at the end, it wasn't scary. It was like a soap opera set in a circus environment. But the movie is interesting. I get it. As the audience, you recognize, in yourself, that what is very different makes you scared and uncomfortable, but feeling like that makes you like the villains of this movie.
Me: It's a hard movie, because just watching it makes you implicit in this voyeuristic exploitation of the "freaks."
She: But that's what's interesting. I think that's the dance that you do with something like this: how much of it is exploitative, and how much of it is the cast doing what they have to do, and having some agency in their own lives, and earning a living in one of the only ways they probably could.
Me: And I actually think, as exploitative as it is, the film does a good job of treating the "freaks" like real people, with full, normal lives.
She: Yes. And it would have been easy to make the "freaks" seem like innocent angels, versus the more savvy and sophisticated "normals," but it did a good job of shading them with nuance, and no one is wholly good or wholly bad. Mostly, you walk away from it saying that the scary people are not the "freaks," but the quote-unquote "normal" people: they're the ones who are grotesque and horrifying.
Me: Well, except the freaks are scary as fuck.
She: They're only scary when they're swarming! That's what frightens me. They become very menacing, crawling through the mud with knives in their teeth. I like my freaks sweet.