Harry Earles - Hans
Olga Baclanova - Cleopatra
Henry Victor - Hercules
Wallace Ford - Phroso
Leila Hyams - Venus
Tod Browning - Director
Tod Browning - Producer
Willis Goldbeck - Screenwriter
Leon Gordon - Screenwriter
Merrit B. Gerstad - Cinematographer
Freaks is a nightmarish collision between normality and abnormality. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze artist, marries the dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) for his money, planning to poisin him with the aid of her stongman lover Hercules (Henry Victor). The vengeful circus freaks, who catch onto the pair's scheme, band together to enact a horrible revenge upon them, forming the film's powerful denouement.
Because of its use of real freaks and its unfortunate early history--banned in Britain, shelved by MGM after disastrous premieres and then snapped up for exploitation by Dwain Esper (of Maniac, 1934, fame)--Freaks acquired an unsavory reputation which lingers on even though denied by the film itself. If the last scenes are horrific enough to satisfy the most ghoulish tastes, the revelation of the film is its warmth and humanity. Director Tod Browning, who directed Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula (1931), manages to evoke the closed world of freaks, the intensely human emotions contained within inhuman exteriors, in such a way that fascinated revulsion turns into tender comprehension.
His first introduction to the freaks comes as a local squire walks through a forest, his gamekeeper babbles wildly about having seen grotesque creatures in the wood, and the camera focuses on a clearing in which things crawl, dance and hop obscenely. The squire angrily protests, and Madame Petralini (Rose Dione), the motherly body in charge of the freaks, explains that they are merely playing in the sun on a day off from the circus. An instinctive huddling of the terrified freaks against Dione, a gesture from a pin-headded woman who lovingly touches her face, and the scene suddnly turns from a Walpurgisnacht revel into a charming idyll.
The brilliance of the film lies in the care with which its sideshow context is evoked--on the one hand, the "normal" circus folk, with their cruel, unthinking mockery of the freaks; on the other, the freaks themselves, joyous, eager to accept anybody who will meet them halfway. Frozo the clown (Wallace Ford) and his girl Venus (Leila Hyams), who take the freaks as they are, link these worlds in two wholly charming scenes: teasing one of the pin-headed women about her new dress, and joking with the bearded lady about the birth of her baby.
These scenes, and more particularly the sequence of the wedding banquet, provide an emotional basis for the horror of the climax. The wedding banquet is a brilliant piece of mise-en-scene, with the freaks assembled around a long table in joyous celebration of the marriage between Baclanova and Earles, culminating in the wild progress of a dwarf down the center of the table, clutching a loving-cup of wine and accompanied by a mounting chant of "We accept her, we accept her, one of us."
The intensity, the laughter, the strange ritual of the chant, make Baclanova's revulsion perfectly natural. But she is still unable to consider the freaks as other than unfeeling monsters, and inflicts the final insult on her tiny husband by carrying him piggyback around the room. After this, and the subsequent slow poisoning of Earles, there is no doubt whose side the audience is on.
The macabre finale, lit in chiaroscuro, is even better. As Baclanova and Victor go about their business of poisoning Earles, eyes watch constantly, peering in at windows and from beneath caravans. The freaks gather their forces. A storm breaks, the rain comes pouring down, knives appear tnd there is nothing on the soundtrack but the storm, the caravans rolling, a melancholy tune played by a dwarf on a pipe; the steaming rain, the thick mud full of crawling shapes in the darkness, and Baclanova and Victor running screaming in terror.
--PHIL HARDY, ed. from The Encyclopedia of
Horror Films, 1986
A selection of Freaks related films.
Find Freaks on eBay.com
A selection of Freaks in books.
A History of Horror
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