Wednesday, July 30, 2008

#31: Freaks


Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Clarence Aaron Robbins, Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Charles MacArthur, Edgar Allan Woolf
Released February 20, 1932

"Their code is a law unto themselves; offend one, and you offend them all."

Carrying over the theme of vampire movies from the other night, director Tod Browning directed in 1931 the quintessential all-time vampire classic, Dracula. An all time classic starring Bela Lugosi, Dracula is definitely in the running for most famous and influential horror movie of all time.

In 1932, Browning upped the creepiness factor a hundred-fold and pretty much blew Dracula out of the water with his unsettling and disturbing Freaks. His reward: his film was hacked from 90 minutes to an hour (the excised footage is, apparently, lost forever) and his career was virtually destroyed.

As the title suggests, Freaks takes place amidst the world of the traveling circus, and, more specifically, the world of the sideshow performer. . . the strongman, the Siamese twins, the human torso and the like. If you've ever been to a county fair and got duped out of your money by the "Freak Show," which (at least when it made its way through Nebraska) was more of a collection of creepy things stored in jars and other fakeries, you might have no idea what a real Freak Show might hold.

Browning pulls no punches. A former circus contortionist himself, he scoured the globe to assemble his cast. When you watch this movie and see the pinheads, half man and human torso, know that these are not special effects or props. While Browning may be accused of exploiting these people for the sake of making a horror movie, it's easy to make the case that, given the plot, he's actually treating them with a humanity that we usually reserve to "regular" people who aren't as deserving of such treatment.

For example, our first introduction to his cast of "freaks" is not in some dimly lit haunted house, but rather a beautiful sunny day by a lake, where they dance with each other until disturbed and sent away by a bystander. Moments later Josephine Joseph, the "half man, half woman" is mocked by some of her fellow circus performers. It doesn't take long to get what Browning is trying to say: "Normal" humans are fucking assholes.

Two "normal" humans in particular are the focus of Freaks, and they show their true colors early. Cleopatra the trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) , and Hercules (Henry Victor), the circus strongman, mock and belittle everyone around them. The former flirts with Hans (Harry Earles), one of the show's little people, while the latter goes so far as to punch Josephine Joseph in the face. Together, they conspire to have Cleopatra marry Hans before they attempt to murder him and take his money.

Telling you what happens after that would ruin the movie, but suffice to say don't piss off freaks. If they offer you wine, you drink it. That's all you need to know for now.

You may spend most of the moving thinking, "What makes this a horror film?" Just wait for the attack in the rain.

Apparently, a good chunk of this sequence was cut from the original film, which is a real heartbreaker, since it's the best sequence in the entire movie. Despite the fact that Freaks is over 70 years old, the thunderstorm sequence retains a good deal of its shock value. With freaks crawling around in the mud armed with knives and guns, this must have scared the bejesus out of audiences back then.

If you do rent the DVD, be sure to watch the small featurette on the film's alternate endings. It explains what was cut, along with explaining why the "happy" ending was tacked on after the reveal of Cleopatra's fate. Knowing the true ending to the film makes it that much more tragic that Browning's film was essentially ruined by MGM to please a bunch of sasparilla-sipping pussies.

For more on Freaks:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Apparently, you can watch the entire movie on Google Video (I couldn't get it to work)

Since no real "trailer" of the movie exists, here's a brief scene of The Living Torso lighting a cigarette:

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