Long unseen, FREAKS was MGM's answer to Universal's popular FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but public and critical revulsion to the use of actual circus freaks soon forced the movie from distribution. Dwain Esper (of MANIAC fame) later gave it road shows in tents and burlesque houses, further
adding to this cult classic's notorious reputation.
The story follows Cleopatra (Baclanova), a beautiful but avaricious trapeze artist who seduces and marries midget circus owner Hans (Earles) to get at his money. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, the close-knit society of "freaks" warmly welcomes her into their family at the wedding
reception as "one of us, one of us." Cleopatra shrinks back in disgust, however, telling them all that she will never be grotesque, while her secret lover, Hercules the strongman (Victor), howls with laughter. She humiliates her smitten husband by openly kissing the lecherous Hercules and the
community soon realizes a threat is in their presence. When Hans falls ill, the group figures out that Cleopatra and Hercules have been slowly poisoning him, and so they plan a horrible, ironic revenge.
Although the suspenseful, brilliantly handled final scenes suggest an exploitation of the film's handicapped players, by then we have actually come to identify more with them than with the "normal" Cleopatra and Hans. The final revenge is thus not so much an attempt to turn melodrama into horror
as it is the resolution of an old-fashioned morality play. Possibly Browning's warmest film, FREAKS is a compassionate study of how physically challenged people manage on their own. We see how they bond to each other and to those (Ford and Hyams) who love them as they are.
Some of the film's best moments are those unburdened by the plot, as we visit circus members--the bearded lady; the bird girl; the hermaphrodite; the human skeleton; the pinheads; and the Siamese twins--to see how they move, how they feel, how they love. Although slow-moving and uneven, FREAKS is
one of Browning's more consistently fine films, a landmark still worth seeing. leave a comment