Freaks is one of those movies that I’ve been hearing about ever since I really got into horror movies, but haven’t seen. Thank goodness for Blockbuster then, as I put this on my queue over a year ago and finally moved it to the top (along with all my other horror movies on the list) recently. And wow, is it crazy.
Even with everything I’d heard, I still had my doubts that a movie made in 1932 could really get to me, but Freaks did a better job of it than most of the other movies I’ve seen. The film, directed by Dracula’s Tod Browning, features a group of circus performers, many of whom are called freaks due to their physical deformities, the kinds of people that made up freak shows back in the day. But there’s also a few “regular” people around too including a floozy named Cleopatra, a jerky strong man called Hercules, a nice clown man by the name of Phroso and a beautiful young animal trainer named Venus. There’s also a little person named Hans and his one-time fellow little person love interest Frieda.
The basic plot is pretty simple, Cleo finds out that Hans is rich so she marries him (thus ruining his engagement to Frieda) and then tries to poison him. She’s in cahoots with Herc this whole time. Now, the funny thing is that we don’t really get to that point in the movie until maybe halfway through the 66 minute movie. There’s another storyline about Phroso and Venus falling in love despite Phroso’s near obsession with comedy (he’s a clown). But inbetween all that we get scenes with the freaks themselves. We see the pinheads playing in a field, acting like children instead of outcasts under the watchful eye of the circus owner until some jerk comes in and gives her a hard time. We also get to see a dude by the name of Prince Randian who had neither arms nor legs, get a match out of a box, light it and then light his cigarette all unaided. I also like Johnny Eck the “Half Boy” who lacked legs, but walked around on his hands instead.
The one thing I always heard over and over was that Browning wanted to use real circus freaks in the movie which is what truly adds to the creepiness of the scene. Jeez, that sounds kind of bad. I’m not really sure how to say this in a PC way, but what I mean is that, in the last scene, when these people are crawling through the mud to stab/mutilate/kill Cleo and Herc it’s all the more scary because you know there’s no special effects being used. It’s all real, which makes it more real in your mind which makes it more likely to happen. All of which is not to say that Freaks paints these people in a negative light. In the end, they’re protecting their own and not letting somebody who thinks she’s better than them come in, insult them and push them around. And boy did those two deserve what they got. SPOILER Cleo get her legs removed and her face messed up and turned into the Duck Lady. Herc’s not shown in the final scene, but in an interview on the DVD they said that the freaks castrated him, which you know because the once deep-voiced man is singing soprano.
There’s a great featurette on the DVD about the casting of the movie, which I highly recommend you check out. I found out that the dude who played Hans was also one of the Lollipop Guild Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. While I’m on the subject, I have to say that I’ve never seen a little person that age who looked so much like a little kid. It was really strange to see someone who (and maybe this is because of the black and white) looked like a young child. The same can be said for Frieda (they’re brother and sister in real life) who looked like a child-like version of an English prof I knew in college.
Anyway, if you’re a horror fan, you definitely need to check this flick out, even if you think that nothing made before Hitchcock is worth your time. Hey, it’s only a little over an hour, so even if you don’t like it, it’s not a huge investment of your time. But I think you’ll dig it.