Film Review: 'Freaks'

The first American picture to be marketed as an unambiguously supernatural horror experience (released on Valentine's Day, 1931) was Tod Browning's Dracula starring the iconic Bela Lugosi. Universal were at that time in a financial jam, thanks in part to the economic travails of the Great Depression. They found their saviours in the gothic texts of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Rival outfits quickly noticed that audiences were flocking to the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) and box-office receipts don't lie. MGM (always the classiest studio in Hollywood) decided they too wanted a slice of the lucrative pie, and turned to studio old boy Browning to deliver them their own smash hit.

But after terrible test screenings, the resulting Freaks (1932) was edited down from ninety minutes to just over the one-hour mark, and tossed into a few movie houses, in February of 1932. It was all but forgotten until the 1960s. Based on a 1923 short story by Tod Robbins (titled Spurs) the film has been interpreted as Browning's attempt to portray the sideshow acts in a positive light, and the able-bodied characters in a bad one. The lip service moralising is utter rubbish and is undermined by the demands not only of the genre, but of the nightmarish trajectory of its narrative. The invention of a menacing code - "Offend one and you offend them all" - makes the lack of forgiveness and greed for revenge seem akin to that of the Mafia.

The vendetta against scheming Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor) is carried out with murderous gusto. Also, Browning punctuated the main plot - a little person (Harry Earle) marries a fully grown woman and she sets out to kill him for his inheritance - with the carnies performing their bizarro skits for the camera. So in a way, it's guilty of that which is seeks to condemn: treating disabled folk without humanity and as objects of fascination. Yet for all its faults, there is nothing like Freaks. It's a singular piece of work for any major studio to make, let alone Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and it has endured as both a cult curisosity and historical benchmark.

The 'Loving Cup' wedding feast scene is truly iconic ("One of us, one of us!"), and the ending - in which the band of social outcasts crawl beneath the caravans, on a dark and stormy night, to exact revenge - is among the creepiest sequences in horror history. Throughout the 1920s Browning and Lon Chaney, as others have pointed out, practically invented screen ugliness. The lauded actor, known as "the Man with a Thousand Faces", turned his profession into a physically masochistic process. He would contort his body for hours on end and his ghoulish makeup effects were legendary even in their day. With Freaks Browning completely undermined the studio's key tenets on beauty, desire, entertainment and cinematic opulence. Perhaps that is what MGM could not abide most of all? Undoubtedly flawed, Freaks is also admirably bonkers and quite simply unforgettable.

Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn


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