Like the characters of its title, Todd Browning’s 1932 Freaks is an anomalous, unforgettable film that evokes a clash of emotions – from shock and horror to empathy and profound pity – but remains one of the most undeniably unique movies in the history of the medium. Adapted from Tom Robbins’ short story “Spurs”, though bearing little resemblance in its final incarnation, Freaks’ simple premise revolves around a ‘normal’ circus-performer who plans to marry and kill her dwarf circus peer for his inheritance, only to become the object of wrath for the other sideshow performers upon finding out her true intentions.
Helmed by horror master Todd Browning following the success of his work on such other classics as the original Dracula, The Unknown, and The Unholy Three, Browning had convinced wonder-boy producer Irving Thalberg to purchase the story as a vehicle for himself and fellow horror-icon Lon Chaney to capitalize on the success of similar horror movies that had garnered unprecedented recognition from the public during the earlier 30s. But unlike the others, as beautiful and strange as they may be, Freaks remains a film without comparison.
While Chaney, Lugosi, and Karloff shocked audiences through incredible performances enhanced by make-up that transformed their normal faces into creative creatures, the cast and performers of Freaks are presented as they truly are. From Harry Earles as the dwarf, to the Hilton Sisters as the conjoined twins, to Pete Robinson as the human skeleton, to Prince Randian as the living torso, these characters’ true physical abnormalities are presented without censorship or false charade.
The premise revolves around the basic set-up from the short story – that a normal’ woman working in the circus intends to marry and then kill a fellow dwarf. Though this remains the crux of the narrative, the film uses its unique setting and cast to full effect – offering subplots to much of its supportive cast and presenting a somewhat documentarian glance toward the back-stage life of its performers.
The film’s prologue accomplishes a great deal in its few short minutes to both stimulate and abate questions of the subject matter ahead. With a circus barker standing in Browning’s place, his opening speech establishes the intentions of the filmmakers, describes the ironclad code amongst the freaks, and foreshadows the horrible doom that awaits the antagonist. Most importantly, this prologue helps address complaints that may arise into the unsettling moral landscape of what will soon be presented onscreen – to wonder whether employing such deformed men and women is exploitive and sensationalistic, rather than helping to shed light on an all too often shunned section of society. But the filmmakers/ringleader address such protests in a few quick sentences, mostly by appealing through empathy (continually repeating “you could be one of them”) and explaining the inviolable code of ethics constructed by the freaks to avoid further harm upon their already unimaginably difficult lives (a clear warning of what lies ahead).
The film’s first true narrative section revolves around the dwarf Hans and his burgeoning attraction to Cleopatra, the normal sized woman who performs as the circus’ trapeze artist. The dwarf and his fiancée – another dwarf named Freida – bicker with the kind of casual jibes that would not be uncommon to any couple. Repeatedly, Browning frames the squabbles of their marriage against the most familiar arguments: she thinks he doesn’t love her anymore, she asks him not to smoke his cigars for his health, she consults with her friend about Hans’ wandering eyes toward another woman (Cleopatra)…the most common of matrimonial troubles that would plague any marriage without their physical abnormalities as a point of concern.
Throughout much of this first half, Browning repeats this idea with several of the other freak performers – offering scenes of mundane conflicts and relationship problems that would not be unusual amongst any walk of life. The bearded lady gives birth, the performers commiserate over wine after a long day of work (the armless woman sipping her glass with the use of her dexterous feet), the human torso – a man with no limbs whatsoever – rolling a smoke and striking a match with only the use of his mouth, the conjoined sisters arguing over the bad habits of their boyfriend (s?). All these prosaic vignettes illustrate a slice of life of these performs,while also demonstrating that despite their disabilities, the freaks have created a clear community built upon their trust and fraternity amongst one other. Meanwhile, the basic premise unfolds. With the help of Hercules – a strong brute working as a performer – Cleopatra plans to seduce Hans the dwarf into a marriage proposal only to later murder him for his wealthy inheritance.
The next sequence – The Wedding Feast – is the highlight of the movie and its most enduring legacy. Cleopatra and Hans have married, and the performers have gathered together at an incredibly long table to celebrate the union. The sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and ending that bridges the gap between the myriad portraits into the performers’ lives during the opening and the catalyst to their terrible rage that will be revealed by the conclusion.
As the freaks share wine, laughs and food, Cleopatra sneaks poison into Hans’ champagne glass while growing increasingly drunk herself. At about the mid-way point, the freaks initiate their infamous “one of us” song. As another dwarf passes around an enormous goblet imbibed by each freak, a chanting chorus of “we accept her/we accept her/one of us/one of us/gooble-gobble-gooble-gobble…” resounds louder and louder from the congregation of misfits.
Unlike the scenes of mundane daily life replaced by characters with physical abnormalities played out in the opening section, the “one of us” chant unfolds upon the viewer as though witnessing a ritual passed down amongst members of some ancient, pagan cult. The ritual is an unnerving yet fascinating glimpse into the practices of a secret circle – an oddly empathetic but undeniably disturbing version of a wedding ceremony.
Browning employs the same visual mastery that led to his success in the early silents of his career. As infamous as the “one of us” song has become, one could still watch the entire Wedding Feast segment without sound and completely understand the reactions from each character that accompany the rise and falls of the narrative.
…which concludes with the sealing of Cleopatra’s fate.
In the midst of the “one of us” song, Cleopatra is asked to drink from the goblet – demonstrating her submission and initiation into the freaks’ inner circle – but she becomes overwhelmingly horrified by the suggestion. Her eyes wide as saucers, she seizes the goblet and declares: “filthy, slimy…freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” before splattering the wine across their faces.
A moment later, Hans’ face sinks in defeat, realizing that his love for this beautiful ‘normal’ woman is nothing but the sham that he should have suspected. Adding salt to the wound, Hercules lifts Hans onto Cleopatra’s shoulders, and the two drunkenly prance around the table with the dwarf weeping from atop their tall shoulders.
The final segment cuts to a week later, as Hans recover from the poisoning. Though Cleopatra profusely apologizes for her drunkenness, the freaks begin their revenge against the two imposters. Repeatedly, the other performers confront Cleopatra and Hercules in passive-aggressive manners. Finally, a terrible storm hits the traveling circus and the performers of various, unique deformities unify to exact their revenge, brandishing a collection of knifes and pistols.
As with the Wedding Feast, Browning allows the dreaded sequence to unfold with a sense of unsettling escalation and mounting suspense that allows for a more horrific outcome than could ever be portrayed onscreen – Literally as censors refused the true revenge scene to be shown.
Cleopatra screams and the film instantly transitions back to the ringleader. Originally, however, Cleopatra screams and the nearby tree falls, crushing her legs, and the freaks then descend upon her. Meanwhile, Hercules gets a much worse revenge of his own right. Rather than the abrupt ending now, the freaks descended upon him as well…and castrate him.
As it stands, the consequence of Cleopatra’s revenge is revealed in still horrifying and unforgettable fashion: as the freaks have transformed her into a grotesque, squawking duck. Her face mutilated, her lower limbs removed and replaced by a feathery plumage below her still human arms. In the original ending, it’s revealed that her memory has also been removed, while Hercules is revealed to be just beside her – singing a high tenor voice from his newly emasculated form.
Perhaps predictably, this original ending and the film itself caused unprecedented outrage from the public. (A pregnant woman witnessing the original ending in the preview screening threatened to sue MGM for her miscarriage.) For all Browning’s courage and persistence, the film would prove to be the beginning of the end for his career. After a very short run and a wave of mostly scathing critical review, the film was pulled from circulation by its New York engagement and subsequently banned from even being shown in the U.K. for the next thirty years until its revival, which would be at the 1960 Venice Film Festival.
After nearly thirty years of complete abandonment, the film was resurrected and imbued a completely new life thanks to the various cultural movements of the 60s. The appropriation of the word “Freak” itself and the flower power generation’s desperate push against typical ideas of ‘normal’ that had suffocated so many post-World War II Americans seized the film for its unique thematic ideals and to-this-day unimaginable bravery in pushing the abnormal to the forefront of the most glamorous medium.
Ever since, the film has taken on a legend of its own right – a movie that demands discussion afterward and an almost invariable recommendation at least for the sake of claiming to witness this unforgettable gem. Due to our present day use of constant-CGI, but also in remembering when skilled make-up artists were responsible for transforming regular looking actors into horror monstrosities – Freaks remains in a unique category of its own for blending the fictitious world of the narrative into the very real lives of its abnormal performers.
In doing so, the film took a very brave gamble. One that cost many of those involved (and the film itself) to be labeled an undeniable failure, but one whose legacy has only grown in time to prove that by looking past its surface, there lies a genuine, heartbreaking soul to be accepted amongst its peers. As it has now become the subject of countless essays, retrospectives/revivals and inspiring the season of one of the most popular shows on television in American Horror Story, Freaks now stands proud – due to the very flaws that initially earned its universal shunning – to be declared one of most premiere titles not only within the horror genre but the larger film pantheon.