Overview: A woman tries to marry a circus freak and kill him for his inheritance in a film so controversial, it ruined Tod Browning’s career. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; 1932; Unrated; 64 minutes.
Some History: Tod Browning made movie history when he directed one of the first iterations of Dracula in 1931. This might be considered blasphemy, but I’m not quite in love with the film itself. It’s quite good and is responsible for the cinematic empire that is the Universal Monsters. I just can’t get too excited about the film itself. But Freaks is a favorite movie of mine.
People have always been judged on how they look, whether it’s the color of their skin, their size in weight, or they suffer a deformity. People can be real dicks. You don’t need a movie to remind you of that. But this is one of the first films to really embrace a group of people’s differences and show that they’re people. They’re put on display for “normal” people’s enjoyment and entertainment, making us wonder who are the real “freaks.”
One of Us, One of Us: When a trapeze artist named Cleopatra marries a midget named Hans for his wealth, she can’t stand the “freaks” and is visibly repulsed. She puts up a decent façade but a drunken reception ends when she announces her affair with the strongman and ridicules them for their different appearances. All Hans and the other performers wanted was to accept her into their tightly knit community. They’re nothing more than a big family. What the film illustrates so well is the loving nature of the group of performers. When the balance is unsettled, they stand together against those who would do them harm. And what happens in the climax of this film is representative of that, but perhaps it’s also too far.
Browning makes it clear that getting even isn’t always the best approach. Do the real freaks of the movie deserve what happens to them? Perhaps, but that’s a slippery slope. Just know that the conclusion sticks with you for a while. It was such a traumatizing ending that it led to MGM tying together a happier final scene after an admittedly pretty dark finale. It may be one of the only studio mandates that ever worked in a film’s favor because it sticks to the thesis of the film. They’re not freaks. They’re just people. And people are capable of dispensing true horror. Considering the final act of horror in the film, that might be the scariest thing this film has to offer.