Directed by Tod Browning
Freaks is a bit of a melodrama about a group of circus “freaks” and a trapeze artist who goes by Cleopatra. Most of those in the traveling circus are severely disabled and deformed, whether they be limbless, legless, stunted or otherwise different. They see Cleopatra as an outsider, partially because she isn’t disabled in any manner but also because, well she’s the worst. She preys on the infatuation of a dwarf named Hans and when she learns that he is to inherit a large fortune, she marries him and plots to murder him with the circus ‘strongman’ named Hercules.
It is thus the two ordinary looking people who are hideous and the “freaks” who we are to empathize with. Today that might not seem so revolutionary, particularly after so many films that make it easy to empathize with the ostracized, many who are victimized because of the way they look (be it actual racism or something like Edward Scissorhands), but for the time in which this was released it was quite different, for the audience to engage with characters who are defined by things other than their deformities rather than to marvel at their physical stature.
Granted their various deformities are made to be a spectacle within the film, and there is a whole grey area here about our relationship to the characters, how we look at them, etc. It’s certainly notable, and it disturbed many critics at the time. Audiences too, because this movie bombed and effectively ended Tod Browning’s career. Looking at his IMDB filmography, this was the 46th of the 50 films he directed.
But so I think the film does something that today isn’t that notable and might even be manipulative. To take someone who might be insecure about their body and have them mocked for that very insecurity, well we can all identify with that, right? It seems too easy, but again for the time in which this was made just the attempt to have us identify with a someone like Hans was noteworthy, and I think that influenced the way the movie was roundly rejected.
It might also be that the movie was too violent. The current version is 64 minutes long, but the original runtime was closer to 90. The movie was then effectively censored, cutting out among other things a scene in which the circus employees get their revenge on Hercules by castrating him. Oh yeah, and one of the things left in is the final image of Cleopatra, something of a cross between a human and a duck. I’ll leave it to wikipedia to describe:
“As for Cleopatra, she has become a grotesque, squawking ‘human duck’. The flesh of her hands has been melted and deformed to look like duck feet, her legs have been cut off and what is left of her torso has been permanently tarred and feathered.”
And I suppose that’s what makes this film so horrifying. The story on its own is rather mundane and straightforward, but it’s the degree to which the “freaks” enact their revenge which helps sell the spectacle. And I’m not sure why this didn’t occur to me earlier, but their revenge does kind of undercut our empathy for them. They want revenge, sure, but to castrate and otherwise maim their victims, well sh*t that’s pretty dark. I mean I kind of like the gall to just go for it, but it certainly helps make this a murky film, one that’s hard to really contextualize.
Part of that murkiness is that the final scene involves a happy reunion between Hans and Frieda, another dwarf to whom Hans was engaged before he married Cleopatra. It’s a sentimental moment, but I mean f*ck it just followed the horrifying spectacle of Duck Cleopatra. Because any scene showing her torture was removed it might be a little easier to forget about her and be happy that our heroes are happy.
Damn what a film. It’s disturbing but also wholesome and heartbreaking. It’s a combination of pathos, empathy and a fairly twisted imagination and sense of revenge. It speaks to a darkness within all of us. The characters who are not disabled in any way have it in mind to mock and then take advantage of those who are, and the characters who are differently abled go to those great lengths to humiliate and torment their own tormenters.
But this is all kind of great, even if you don’t agree with it. Or maybe it’s not, but it’s noteworthy, and all this time later it’s quite something to think about, the way certain people are represented onscreen, the fact that they’re represented at all. And it’s far from tame. It’s alive, it’s fermenting, curdling, boiling and erupting. It’s as much a living, breathing work of art as any from this time period.
There are films like Browning’s Dracula, but while that film may be revolutionary and iconic in its own right, it feels much more staid then Freaks. It’s a film which seems to play by the rules of the genre and the time in which it was released whereas Freaks marches to the beat of its own drum.
In the scene near the end of the film wherein the “freaks” close in on Hercules in order to castrate him, the sheer spectacle of their crawl is almost overwhelming. They move in unique ways because of the ways in which they are maimed, and then there’s the fact that they’re all bearing knives, guns or other weapons, intent on doing God knows what to the strong man.
The imagery is evocative, certainly not hiding their bodies and movements and instead using light and the environment to play up their differences. In this case, because of their proximity to the ground (they all hide behind carriage wheels) and their cruel intentions, it is as if they have climbed up from hell itself. It’s an image that in its sinister qualities could be a bit unfair, at least if you’re looking at the group of differently abled as a whole, but then if you apply it only to these characters, putting aside any broader takeaways, well it just makes sense. They appear horrifying to the man whose point of view we’re seeing through, the man towards whom they are crawling. It seems also to me to be the inspiration for a similar scene in Toy Story when Sid’s mutilated toys get their own revenge on him.
Up Next: Tomorrowland (2015), Triumph of the Will (1935), Super Dark Times (2017)