Freaks review by The Grim Ringler

If director Tod Browning is known for anything, its bound to be his early adaptation of the play Dracula. The most famous, and for many, beloved adaptation of the novel of the same name, Dracula has managed to capture the hearts and minds of movie goers since it was first released. But while I like Dracula just fine, for me the film that really drew me into the world of Tod Browning was the little seen Freaks, a very grim, very sinister portrait of the underbelly of carnivals and their freak attractions. This was a film that was reviled by critics and audiences upon its initial release and essentially disappeared into the abyss, taking its director with it. By some dark luck though it was re-discovered by the counterculture in the sixties and people began to become aware of how wonderful this strange little film was. What first seemed like a mean-spirited assault on people known as freaks was finally seen not as an attack, but as a celebration of a subculture that was shunned and hidden from view in the world outside of a circus tent.

Freaks is the story of Hans, a mysteriously wealthy little person who is engaged to marry a sweet, passive woman his own size and who loves him dearly. But while Hans may care deeply about his bride to be, but he is in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful and cruel big person who is the main attraction at the circus Hans works for. And what began as a passing fascination turns to obsession as Hans begins devoting every minute to Cleo and to making her happy. Which means of course buying her things. The other freaks in the circus are heartbroken for Frieda, Hanss betrothed, and are very suspicious of Cleo, who seems to be making a fool of Hans when he thinks she may be falling in love with him. The plot thickens when Hercules, the circuss strongman begins romancing Cleo as well, when he thinks no one is watching, and slowly the freaks are catching on. Before long its announced that Hans and Cleo shall be married at the circus and they shall have a reception under its tents. The reception though, attended by all of the circuss freaks, who are Hans only family, becomes a disaster when Cleo, offered a loving cup as a symbol of her acceptance as part of the family, becomes sickened and enraged and calls the entire crowd freaks and tells them to leave. But Hans, embarrassed by this outburst from his new wife, remains by her, to his own detriment. Hans becomes gravely ill not long after the wedding though and all signs seem to point to Cleo, who has hopes of killing her new husband and taking his fortune for her own. The freaks are wise to her plot though and have a surprise for she and her co-conspirator Hercules, and their lesson in freak justice wont be one soon forgotten.

While it may not seem it by my description, this is a love story. The love Frieda has for Hans is heart wrenching to see as, no matter what he does, she only wants to see Hans happy. Even if it means she will be alone. The love story also extends to one between the big people, a clown and a showgirl, who fall in love not for each others looks but because of their antagonistic attraction to one another. Theyre like two grade-school kids who trade barbs because they cant trade kisses. This is also a movie about the love of family. Not a family by blood, but one created from a common social standing. This is a film about freak love. And freak justice. The freaks here respect that Hans wants to marry Cleo because perhaps they all dream of that, to be normal and to marry someone big; someone who sees not their body but their soul. But while the other freaks may respect that Hans wants to marry Cleo, they dont trust her as they rarely trust any big person, though they dont have many reasons to trust. What seems at first to be a horrifying abuse of these actors and their physical difference isnt that at all but is a look into their world and what their lives are like. Now, naturally there is a lot of embellishment here, and Browning makes good use of his actors. Heck, this is a movie about freaks, and while he may have bonded with his actors, Browning also knew that the film hinged on them. But what he does, that many directors wouldnt have done, is to make a freak the lead in the film. Make no mistake, Hans is the star here, and his co-stars are the other freaks. The film is very well shot and even today, you arent likely to find many films with a climax as chilling as Freaks boasts. The end alone was enough to warrant four different versions since it was so shocking for the time it was released. The reason I love Freaks though is that it shows us a world we had never seen before, and have never seen since. A world that is all but long gone, and a look into our own strange past. As much a morality play as it is a horror film, Freaks shows us people that are not like most of the populace, who are different and yet who are the stars in this film. We are shown people that love, hurt, hate, and are willing to kill, who are no different than any other human, yet who are seen by many as monsters. The problem in this film arent the freaks, who many might see as the villains (though that may be more of a thing of the past) but that its the big people who are to fear and distrust.

Freaks isnt going to win anyone an award for acting but it was a bold choice to have the freaks as the stars, and for the most part they do a good job. There are moments when you cant believe how stilted the dialogue is but if you can let it go youll enjoy the film just fine. The direction here, as I said earlier, is wonderful, Browning taking full advantage of his main attractions and using his stage sets to create a strange, enclosed world that is within but separate from the world of the big people.

The picture on the disc is as good as I have ever seen and is as clear as can be asked for from a film this old. The sound is in mono but if you turn it up a bit youll be just fine. The extras are pretty interesting on the disc, though the alternate endings that are boasted of are merely different edits of the same ending. The original ending, we must assume, is lost for good. The documentary is very well made and gets into the nitty gritty of the making of the film and is pretty informative.

I was waiting for this disc to come out for a good two years, having wanted to own it since I saw it in a film class years earlier. This is a film that will scare you, but not because of some man in a monster costume but because of the human monsters that are still so prevalent in the world today. As shocking and gripping as it must have been when it was first released, this is definitely a film Id recommend.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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