*. The easy and obvious place to start is to say that this movie is itself a freak, an oddity, sui generis, “one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio” (David Skal). Though perhaps this is only being lazy and clever. As the initial review in the New York Times put it: “Freaks is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion.”
*. Well, let’s start with things that I think we can say about Freaks. In the first place, it was a commercial failure. MGM wanted to get into the horror business after seeing Universal’s success, but they didn’t like what they got with Freaks and it did poorly at the box office. Critics were largely (though not exclusively) against it, it was banned in the UK, and then all but disappeared for a number of years. Tood Browning’s career was basically over. Skal says Freaks “was the beginning of the end of Todd Browning’s previously charmed career at MGM,” though he did go on to make a couple of other interesting but minor films in the 1930s (including Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll).
*. In the second place, Freaks is a semi-lost film. Apparently it was cut by about a third and the stuff that was cut is gone forever. In this (one) respect it’s like The Magnificent Ambersons (or Metropolis, before that semi-lost film was found): a landmark film but also a ruined monument to what might have been.
*. As a result of having lost so much and then having extra material added in post production at the studio’s insistence (including a new opening and a dreadful epilogue), the result is a mess. There are even lines that are left not making any sense. For example, when Hercules belts Joseph(ine) he says he’ll fix her eye, which just sounds bizarre because they cut the line before it which had him saying “You’re fixing your nose are you?”
*. A final word I’d add to this short list of failure and loss is shock. There are very few horror movies that retain their power to shock, and for Freaks to be able to do so after nearly a hundred years is amazing. And yet who can forget Cleopatra’s final appearance as the Duck Lady? This is body horror long before there was a name for it, and it still packs a wallop.
*. I love the hand tearing through the title screen, and the barker’s spiel immediately grounds our sympathy. “They didn’t ask to be brought into this world.” Echoes of Frankenstein, which are perhaps not by coincidence. Early monsters tended to be more sympathetic. Contemporary horror is more about psychopaths and other killing machines.
*. There’s also a prologue scroll that played before the film that I should mention. “Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.” I had never heard the word “teratology” before. It means the study of abnormalities of physiological development. You learn something every day, and from the unlikeliest sources.
*. Danny Peary: “I can think of no film from the period that is filled with more sexual innuendo.” It really is remarkable, both for how much of it there is and for how frankly it’s presented. Some of it was cut (Skal mentions a scene where the trained seal amorously pursues the Turtle Girl), but plenty remains. Perhaps the most daring is Cleopatra’s line when she displays her bosom to Hercules and asks “What do you think of these?” But there’s also the scene where Cleopatra drops her cape for Hans while he ogles her, or when Phroso seems to notice Venus’s “shape” for the first time. Then there’s Roscoe stripping down to his (ladies’) underwear, or Frieda hanging her lingerie on the clothesline. Or think of the way Cleopatra goes into orgasm mode while Hans massages her (“It’s so good to be rubbed!”), or the similar expressions of passion by the Siamese twin who is not being kissed.
*. Why so much sexy stuff? Usually sex in horror is meant either as a distraction or as a way of suggesting some thematic or psychological link between sex and violence. Here, however, it seems like just another way to introduce a note of normality. Of course these are sexual beings. They are, as they insist, still men (and women).
*. With his background in the circus and predilection for such creepy stories (he’d already done The Unholy Three and The Unknown), I guess this was the movie Browning was destined to make. David Thomson thought Thalberg was also a key personality, but I think this may be overplayed. Thalberg initially supported the film (or at least supported Browning), before later despairing of it.
*. Thomson: “Nothing is exaggerated; nothing is set up in a world of shadow or dementia.” Because it didn’t need to go the route of expressionistic nightmare, though Browning was more than capable of this. But I think the main point is that Browning didn’t want the freaks to seem like monsters, at least initially. He wanted them to appear normal before they turn into something dangerous.
*. Perhaps because of all the cuts it seems to me to be a movie of moments. The wedding banquet is justifiably famous, remembered in films like Altman’s The Player and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Gooble-gobble” has entered the vernacular. The sense of a net closing around Cleopatra and Hercules in the final act is well handled, and the climactic chase in the storm, with the freaks sliding through the mud in pursuit, is great, if abbreviated. Finally, the shot of Cleopatra as the Duck Woman is unforgettable, and really should have been the final shot of the film. The only other ending I can compare it to for sheer shock value is the “Help me! Help meeeeee!” at the end of The Fly (1958).
*. The sideshow performers do their thing, but the acting by the “normal” figures isn’t very good. Some of them seem as uncomfortable with the dialogue as Browning was with sound generally. Originally Myrna Loy was set to play Cleopatra and Jean Harlow Venus, but they understandably bailed. The project itself was originally the idea of Harry Earles (Hans), who wanted to make a film of the Tod Robbins story “Spurs.” Actually, as the credits read, the final script was only “suggested” by “Spurs.” They are very different stories. For example, the midget’s revenge on his gold-digging bride is only to beat her (putting the titular “spurs” to her while he rides on her shoulders), not to turn her into a freak herself.
*. I began by mentioning the conventional line about how this movie is a sort of sideshow attraction of its own. That has to be qualified, as it does tell what is in many ways a conventional story, but I think it’s as a freak show that I still look at it.
*. What I mean is that I don’t really enjoy watching it, and don’t come back to it very often, but that it does exert that horrible fascination that we associate with freak shows, or car accidents. I think parts of it are very well done, and even in its present mutilated form it may be Browning’s best work (I’m not a big fan of Dracula). Maybe it’s the lack of any characters I really care about that leaves me feeling a bit cold toward it.
*. This is, however, also one of the more remarkable things about how Freaks works. For most of the movie the freaks are presented sympathetically: loyal to each other and generally good natured. But at the end this image is reversed: we go from their idyllic first appearance playing in the sunny woods to the last shots we have of them, covered in mud and crawling through a stormy forest at night, very much objects of terror. In other words, we’ve been fooled by a bait-and-switch. Not that the freaks really are evil monsters, but that the story is told in such way that we’ve been lulled into thinking they’re harmless and nice only to have our expectations suddenly reversed.
*. We may think we’re living in a world with certain moral rules, but in the end that’s not the way Browning wants to play it. Because let’s face it, the epilogue’s attempt to whitewash Hans’s complicity in what happened to Cleopatra isn’t just unconvincing but disgusting. We know he is an embittered and nasty man.
*. Skal calls Browning a “profoundly cynical artist.” He’s our contemporary. This is a bleak film and it belongs on a double-bill with such an example of twenty-first century cynicism and body horror as The Human Centipede. Such an outlook is more at home in our own time. Gooble-gobble. One of us.