By Cleaver Patterson.
In today’s age of anything goes splatterfests and in-your-face CGI, it’s perhaps hard to appreciate the full effect Tod Browning’s infamous horror classic Freaks (1932) had upon its first release. At the time, the film that was banned in many countries—it would remain unseen in Britain for over thirty years—was deemed so controversial that it destroyed Browning’s career and didn’t do much for MGM’s reputation either. Strangely, however, when watching the film now, though it undoubtedly remains disturbing, it is its dehumanising aspects, and the mistreatment of the central characters, which shocks as much as any of the film’s more overtly horrific elements.
A beautiful but scheming circus trapeze artist called Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) proclaims her undying love for Hans (Harry Earles), the show’s resident midget and unofficial leader of its band of deformed sideshow ‘freaks’. Cleopatra marries Hans, but secretly hatches a plan with her lover Hercules (Henry Victor), the circus strongman, to kill Hans after finding out that he has inherited a large amount of money. Luckily for Hans, however, his misfit friends discover his new wife’s plot and exact a terrible revenge on the scheming seductress with horrific, and permanent, results.
Atmosphere was everything in early horror. Censorship laws—which may seem draconian compared to the apparent leniency of today’s restrictions—as well as the obvious limitations of early special effects, lessened the degree to which violence and mayhem could be shown on the screen. Before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code (better known under its popular moniker ‘The Hays Code’ named after Will H. Hay, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922-45), which monitored the content of films coming out of Hollywood between 1930 and 1968, it seemed that virtually anything went where American movies were concerned. A degree of nudity and sex, which may surprise even today’s liberally minded viewers, was quite acceptable in the early days of film and, one imagines, the same would have gone for horror had the wherewithal been available to filmmakers of the time to produce hard core gore for the big screen. As it was however, they had to make do with whatever means they had available, which in the main meant atmosphere.
Films from the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood horror, like Universal’s Dracula (1931)—which Browning also directed—Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), as well as most of the classics that Val Lewton produced for RKO a decade later, relied on an air of sinister disquiet and unease, achieved as much through clever lighting and the fertile imagination of the viewer than by any overtly visible horrors. The Uninvited (1941), a classic ghost story produced by Paramount Pictures, directed by Lewis Allen and starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Donald Crisp, is as disturbing today as it was when first released, not because of its early and rather creaky attempts at special effects, but rather by its otherworldliness and creepy air of isolation inferred by the skill of legendary Oscar winning cinematographer Charles Lang.
With this in mind it should come as little surprise that Freaks worked so well. Directed by Browning shortly after his success with Dracula, when he was at the height of his powers, the film should have marked the pinnacle of his career—indeed, now it is widely considered his masterpiece. Here is a film which depends almost completely on its atmosphere and appearance to create the seeping sense of menace which permeates every aspect of its limited 62 minute running time. From the claustrophobic circus setting in which the action plays out until the climatic scenes that unfold during a thunder and lightning storm of Grand Guignol theatricality, Freaks is one of the best examples of the effective less-is-more approach, at least where the man-made aspects of the production are concerned.
This approach, of course, only serves to emphasise the real horror of the film—the central human characters and their mistreatment at the hands of the cruel and insensitive Cleopatra. Watching the film, it goes without saying that the circus ‘freaks’ from whom it takes its name are disturbing; by involuntarily evoking the emotions of pity and distaste (neither of which, though perhaps understandable, are justifiable), the ‘freaks’ clearly were intended to have the effect of upsetting viewers. The fact that their disturbing appearances were real and not due to make-up or camera trickery only added to the disconcerting tone which ran at the heart of the film. Ultimately though, it is Cleopatra who is the real ‘freak’ of the piece, and the poetic justice of her final comeuppance still has the power to shock, even in the seen-it-all cinema of the twenty first century. Though perhaps understandable considering the time at which it was made, it seems none-the-less harsh that the film was to spell the end for Browning’s Hollywood career, when all he was producing was a—perhaps hard to swallow—morality tale.
As is so often the case in cinema, the cruelties and injustices of the real world are much worse than anything the men and women behind the camera could ever come up with: qualities which shaped Freaks, and which all generations of movie goers can relate to and be frightened by.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. He is News Editor for the website Flickfeast, and regularly contributes to Rue Morgue magazine and the Film International website. He is a contributor to the new film encyclopaedia Movie Star Chronicles: A Visual History of 320 of the World’s Greatest Movie Stars, to be published by Aurum Press in October, 2015.
Freaks received a theatrical rerelease in the UK by Metrodome and Hollywood Classics on the 12th June, 2015.