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DVD Review: Freaks (1932)

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Freaks made it’s DVD debut a couple of weeks ago, after being out of print on other formats for years. I remember seeing a VHS copy of it for sale about ten years ago, I never picked it, although I wish I had. I’ve been wanting to see this film for a long time, but was never able to find it in rental outlets, so when I heard that a DVD was being released, I knew this was my chance to get a hold of it.

Made in 1932, the film was greeted with primarily negative reviews. It was a controversial film for its time, mainly for it’s casting and portrayal of actual side-show attractions. It was so controversial that it was pulled from the theaters after it’s New York engagement in the summer of 1932. Taking this a step further, it was banned in many parts of the world for over 30 years. It wasn’t uncovered and brought out again until the mid 1960’s for the next generation of movie lovers. I am not much of a historian, and you can learn more about the history of this film from other online sources and the excellent supplements on this disk.

Tod Browning, who had previously directed the first version of Dracula (excepting Nosferatu, of course, as it was not technically Dracula), brought a different vision to this film, which in many ways, I find to be a superior film. The story is not original, at least by today’s standard, but the plot and it’s treatment was unlike anything to come out of studio at the time. Browning populated the film with a large collection of so-called freaks. Included were a half-man, little people, a bearded lady, a bird man, the pin-heads, the living skeleton, the living torso, the siamese twins, the armless women, and more. Rounding out the cast are a few “normal” actors.

The setting of the film is a traveling circus, but it is from the point of view of the circus workers and attractions, we never get the side of the audience. This is for the best as I feel we get better immersed in the tale at hand without the distractions of changing the audience’s view. I would fear we would start Identifying with the audience rather than the true heroes of the piece. The film tells a tale of a midget, Hans, who falls for a “normal” woman, Cleo, the trapeze artist, despite the protestations of his current girlfriend, Freida. Of course this leads to a rather unpleasant situation.

Despite the age of the movie, I still felt a little disturbed watching the film. There were scenes that just made me squirm. The thing to remember is that it wasn’t due to the deformities of the majority of the cast, but the way they were treated by the so-called ‘normals.’ The freaks of the title were the real people here, you could sense the community between them. A virtual family for those shunned by the ‘normal’ world. The scene that sticks out to me is the wedding banquet where Cleo (Olga Baclanova) is accepted into the community. I dare not give it away, as it is a powerful scene that can unsettle even the most callous. The climax also stands out as one of the creepiest sequences ever filmed.

The acting, if viewed with a modern viewpoint, is not great. But If you allow yourself to become enveloped in the story, which is a good thing to do when watching any film, the acting is superb. Wonderfully emotional performances from all involved. The dialogue is also good, considering how early this was in the “talkie” era, and there is a lot in it, there is a great deal of talking going on.

Tod Browning’s direction is solid, actually better here than Dracula. The fact that the cast was talented and seemed natural on camera doesn’t hurt it one bit. After the initial curiosity, you begin to forget the abnormalities and just see the performances.

Video. First, it is presented in it’s original aspect ration of 1.33:1. Considering that this film is over 70 years old, it looks fantastic. Of course, there are some marks and blemishes along the way, but that is to be expected. The black is deep, and it is never hard to distinguish even in the darker scenes. The final sequence quality degrades significantly, but again, the movie is old, and source material was probably scarce.

Audio. Presented in it’s original mono, it has some hiss and the level is generally on the lower side. I actually turned on the sub-titles for most of the film to make sure I got everything. For the most part the rendering is good. We can’t expect to have a modern quality track from a film of this age.

Extras. There is a nice selection of extras providing some wonderful background for the film:
-First there is a text prologue that was added for it’s theatrical reissue. It explains some of the setting, and the code of the freaks.
-Next up is a selection of 3 alternate endings, hosted by author David J. Skal. Sadly they did not include the video for the original ending, probably lost to time, but it is described by Skal, I would have liked to have seen this version.
-Freaks: Sideshow Cinema featurette. This extra is excellent, running a little over an hour it takes us into the production of the film, and more specifically, the lives of each of the sideshow performers involved. This a wonderful documentary with interviews with Skal, other historians, and other performers. It was interesting to note some of the other films they appeared in, the star, Harry Earles, was in The Wizard of Oz as one of the Lollipop Guild, and Angelo Rosito was Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Overall this is a wonderful piece that puts the film into better perspective.
-Finally, we get a commentary from David Skal. This is a good commentary, but it does duplicate a lot of information that is provided in the documentary, as if they spliced elements of the interview over the film.

Bottomline. A great film that has aged well. It is also way ahead of it’s time with it’s treatment of the sideshow performers. A fantastic ensemble cast, a story that is very personal, and some incredible moments, this is not to be missed. I cannot recommend this enough. On top of it’s importance as a film, MGM has done an excellent job presenting it, right down to the use of the original art for the cover.

Highly Recommended.

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  • I’m gonna be importing this later in the month, and it looks like it’ll be worth it. Good job, Chris. Freaks is a brilliant film.
    Hopefully they’ll give Browning’s The Devil Doll similar treatment.

  • Chris Kent

    The Devil Doll is only fair and does not deserve half the treatment of Freaks, one of the most influential horror films of all time. Browning was a fascinating madman, as most of the great horror film directors were from this period (James Whale, Fritz Lang, FW Murnau). I believe Browning got the idea for this nightmare from his teen years working with a traveling carnival. You think HBO’s Carnivale is weird, watch Freaks to get an idea where such peculiar inspirations sprung from.

    Imagine David Lynch, Ed Wood and a soused Peter O’Toole mixed together in a morbid milkshake from hell to get a slight idea as to the personality of this classic flick. If memory serves (and it rarely does) wasn’t the strongman castrated during the final scene? Perhaps that was cut out (pun intended)? Or maybe the scene was rewritten?

    Any film that has a midget slicing the gonads off Mr. Universe is at the top of my Greatest Films of All Time list….Browning has very few films available as much of his work was silent and is long lost – but Dracula, The Devil Doll and Mark of the Vampire (a favorite of mine as it has Bela Lugosi in a comedic role before sliding down the slippery slope of drug addiction) can be found….

  • I’d like to see THe Unholy Three, also by Browning and also starring Harry Earles. Not sure if it is available though.

    That ending you describe is apparently lost, David Skal describes it though, I would have liked to have seen that version. THe ending in the film proper is the one that was used theatrically. Plus two athers are included on the disk.

  • Chris Kent

    Stephen King has some great pages devoted to Freaks in his fantastic nonfiction tome Danse Macabre. It was where I first heard of the film (among many others), having read the book as a youngster in junior high.

    King’s work covers some great films and books of the supernatural which influenced American culture.

    I lament the loss of Browning’s London After Midnight, one of the first vampire films ever made (I believe Murnau’s Nosferatu came out a couple of years before). It was a silent classic starring Lon Chaney, Sr. in the role of the vampire. Publicity photographs exist of Chaney’s creation, including protruding teeth, wide eyes, long hair and top hat, but the film has disintegrated. It’s loss was one of several major reasons why there was a movement during the 1980s to restore and preserve film. Unfortunately, most of Browning’s silent work has been lost, though we will always be able to sit back and enjoy Dracula and Freaks.

    Lon Chaney, Sr. – a friend of Browning – was actually set to star in Dracula, but he died, thus opening the door for the then-unknown Bela Lugosi to step into the role.