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Freaks (1932) - "One of us! One of us!"
Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) has been controversial since its release. Produced as a horror film and based on Tod Robbins short story Spurs (1923), it was released at a time when the deformed were viewed less as curiosities as they had been in the old freak show tradition but more as medical anomalies that might be fixed by medical science. And despite the changing attitude toward deformity in the 1930’s the film still encourages an openly voyeuristic gaze.
This seemingly anachronistic staring coupled with the films emphasis of the sexual desires of the freaks (Hans the circus midget says in one scene “I am a man, with the same feelings other men have!”), evidently made the film distasteful to 1932 audiences. Even after some heavy re-editing by the studio the film was a commercial flop and was quickly pulled from distribution by MGM.
Beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) “Peacock of the Air”, seduces and eventually marries Hans the circus midget (Harry Earles), after learning of his inheritance. At their wedding, the other circus freaks decide that they will accept Cleopatra in spite of her being "normal", during the ceremony they pass a large goblet of wine around the table while chanting,! "We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! One of us! Gobble gobble! Gobble gobble"
The ceremony frightens the drunken Cleopatra and she accidentally admits to having an affair with Hercules the strong man. She than mocks the freaks shouting "You dirty slimy FREAKS...You filth, make me one of you, will you?” She tosses the wine in their faces, and drives them away.
Despite being humiliated, Hans remains with Cleopatra. She starts slipping poison into his medicine, but she is overheard discussing his murder and the other freaks plan revenge. At the climax, taking place during a dark and stormy night, they attack Cleopatra and Hercules with knives and other sharp edged instruments, Hercules ultimate fate is not seen but in the original ending he was castrated by the freaks. Cleopatra is horribly mutilated and in the final shot is on display as a squawking “duck woman”, a grotesque sideshow attraction.
Freaks disappeared from sight until 1947, when B-movie director Dwain Esper purchased the film distribution rights and placed the film on the exploitation circuit. Esper added an opening disclaimer to the film which reads in part –
“The love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart- breaking one.
Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and the UNWANTED.”
Tod Browning’s only onscreen credit is on the title page “Tod Browning’s Freaks”. Famous for directing Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Browning had a background in circuses having travelled in a number of carnivals and sideshows in his youth. Browning had also directed the great Lon Chaney in classic films like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927). The Unknown tells the story of a circus performer (Chaney), who has his arms surgically removed to please the woman he loves (she fears the embrace of men), only to discover she has overcome her phobia and fallen for the circus strongman.
Freaks was banned in Britain for 30 years until it was granted an X certificate in 1963, making it one of the longest bans in UK film history. The film was later rediscovered as a cult classic in the 1960’s, it gained newly appreciative audiences who viewed it differently than previous generations. In the U.S. the film played late night movie theatres for years in the 60’s and early 70’s and it now has even more admirers thanks to video and DVD.
Freaks was one of the films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1994 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The Critics wrote -
“For pure sensationalism Freaks tops any picture yet produced.” (Louella Parsons)
“Though this circus story, directed by Tod Browning, is superficially sympathetic to the maimed and the mindless that it features, it uses images of physical deformity for their enormous potential of horror, and at the end, when the pinheads and the armless and legless creatures scurry about to revenge themselves on a normal woman (Olga Baclanova), the film becomes a true nightmare. If this film were a silent it might be harder to shake off, but the naive, sentimental talk helps us keep our distance." (Pauline Kael, New Yorker)
“I still guarantee it to turn the strongest stomach and chill the strongest spine.” (Daily Mail)
“It triumphs at once over your nausea; it also triumphs very quickly over your sense of what is curious.” (Observer)
“Freaks are people, individuals. The movie does not understand this and represents them as a homogenized collection of semi-imbeciles.” (Films in Review)
"Excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others. There are a few moments of comedy, but these are more than balanced by tragedy. Through long periods the story drags itself along and there is one of the most profound anti-climaxes of them all to form the ending. Yet... [it] is not a picture to be easily forgotten... [for] the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre." (New York Times)
"Does not merit that reputation for cruelty accorded it... What I found touching was the human beings' prodigious capacity for adaptation... [It] is a very honest film that can be seen with more pleasure than horror." (Jean Douchet, Cahiers du Cinema, 1962)
“Better as a cause celebre than as a horror film. Usually regarded as his [Tod Browning's] masterpiece, it is more unpleasant than genuinely atmospheric.” (Alan Frank)
“Strident and silly.” (Halliwell)