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Movie Review: Freaks

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Zombos was gloomier than usual. The ageless Grandpa Munster had finally passed the veil. I must admit that I was also saddened by the passing of Al Lewis. Nothing reminds us more of our own looming mortality than the death of those traveling along with us through life’s journey.

“The man had history,” said Zombos, sipping his claret. “So few performers today have history.”

I nodded in agreement. The fireplace crackled in agreement. The Promoli fantasy clock on the mantle chimed in agreement. I felt a spell of reminiscence coming on.

“You know,” said Zombos, “I remember when he had his Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, back in the '80s. It was late one night, and we were just walking along, and there he was, sitting in front of his restaurant — I believe it was called Grampa’s — chomping on a huge cigar. As we stopped to take a look, he jumped up, opened the door, and said 'Are you hungry?' Well, of course we could not pass up the invitation. Such a wonderful personality: earthy, yet vastly talented and resourceful, with a true zest for life.” Zombos fell silent.

Our peaceful mood was soon broken by the arrival of Uncle LaVey, the blackest of the black sheep in Zimba’s family tree. Dressed in his black shirt and pants, and with his black widow’s peaked hairline and black goatee, he presented quite the look of the Satanist about town.

“Zombos!” he said, “I thought you might like to see this again.” He tossed over my copy of Freaks, directed by Tod Browning.

Freaks Movie Poster

“Well, it’s about time you returned it,” I said. He smiled. A peal of thunder echoed outside, followed by a flash of lightning. Rivulets of water started sliding down the narrow windowpanes of the library: a perfect setting in which to view one of cinema’s more outré films. Zombos passed the bottle of claret over to Uncle LaVey, and I inserted the DVD into the player.

As we watched the film again, with David J Skal’s scintillating voice-over commentary, I could not help but wonder — what were Tod Browning and MGM thinking when they made this film? Browning definitely wanted to shock and unsettle his audience, and MGM wanted a horror film that would rival his earlier Dracula success; but what both eventually achieved was an exploitation styled B-movie with flashes of brilliance that has entertained, insulted, and disgusted its audiences since its first showing in 1932.

The story of Hans (played by Harry Earles), and his futile infatuation with the considerably taller Cleopatra (played by Olga Baclanova), set against the backdrop of the sideshow and its singular denizens, still manages to make one ill at ease upon viewing, perhaps due in large part to the participation of those real-life freaks that Browning included in his film: Prince Randian, the Living Torso; Pete Robinson, the Living Skeleton; Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady; Martha Morris, the Armless Wonder; Joseph/Josephine, the Half-Man, Half-Woman; the Pinheads; the Hilton Sisters; Johnny Eck, The Half-Boy; Angelo Rossitto (you may recall him from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); and other performers whose countenances were well off the bell curve average. While Browning was indeed heading down a much less traveled cinematic road, with films like The Unholy Three and The Unknown, his penchant for the unconventional hit its zenith in Freaks.

Taking Tod Robbins’ story, "Spurs," Browning (who had already used Robbins’ novel The Unholy Three to critical and financial success), weaves a tale of intended murder and revenge that is visually stronger, and climactically more horrific than the original source material. Adding a sexual overtone that would undoubtedly offend just about everyone in his “normal” audience of the day, and portraying his performers as initially harmless people with dramatic life-altering physical characteristics, then turning them into demonic angels of vengeance when mistreated, he achieves a story and a mood that brings most viewers to an uncomfortable place they would rather avoid.

“Gooble, gobble!” chanted LaVey, as the infamous wedding feast scene began. “Zombos, this scene always reminds me of your wedding,” he joked. Zombos was not amused. Hmmm… it reminded me of his wedding party, too. How odd.

The wedding scene is one of the highlights of the film. Skal has noted that this particular scene was shot by Browning using his silent film experience (his best work was done in silent films), and indeed, it is prefaced with an intertitle card announcing 'The Wedding Feast'. It is a pivotal point in the film, as Cleopatra humiliates Hans and all of his friends, thereby sealing her doom.

Close-ups of the freaks enjoying the festivities is juxtaposed with Hans’ growing realization that he has made a mistake as Cleopatra becomes more drunkenly brazen with Hercules, the sideshow’s strongman, whom she has been seeing behind Hans’ back. As Hans sits, humiliated and heart-broken, the freaks begin chanting “gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us.”

Angelo Rossitto jumps on the table and passes around a large goblet filled with wine, so that each of the freaks can sip from it. Cleopatra, alerted by Hercules as to what is transpiring, looks in horror as the cup comes closer and closer, eventually recoiling as the cup is held up to her. She takes the cup, but instead of sipping from it, yells “No…dirty…slimy freaks!” and tosses the wine into Rossitto’s face.

In his book, The Monster Show, Skal notes that the wedding feast was heavily censored, and one interesting element that would have intensified Cleopatra’s horror at drinking from the communal goblet was removed: as the cup is being passed around, some freaks dribble into it. I leave it to you, dear reader, as to whether this more nauseating visual should have been included.

Foreshadowing the horror to come, Browning uses close-ups of Rossitto furtively peering into Hans’ wagon, watching Cleopatra slowly poisoning him, and again as his scowling face peers into Hercules’ wagon to see her and Hercules conspiring against Hans. What follows is one of horror cinema’s more memorable series of scenes.

As Tetrollini’s Traveling Circus prepares to get under way during a dark and stormy (well, it was) night, we see Johnny Eck scampering beneath the wagons. As lightning and thunder play in the background, the camera follows him as he makes his way to the group of performers patiently waiting, away from prying eyes, for their moment of reckoning.

Now under way, we cut to Hans’ wagon, rolling along in the muddy road, where his friends watch as Cleopatra once again prepares her poisonous medication. Only this time, Hans confronts her, asking for the bottle of poison. His friends quietly pull out weapons and casually clean them, indicating their sinister intent. Cleopatra is understandably alarmed, and the spoon of poison drops from her fingers.

We now cut to mighty Hercules, who is also having a bad night. A knife is thrown by one of the little people, and slides into Hercules’ side, bringing him down to the muddy road, where he is relentlessly pursued by a swarm of freaks crawling through the mud and rain, brandishing knives. The scene is nightmarish and stands out as one of the most horrific visuals in horror cinema. The ending that was intended, but not used, has Hercules survive, but speaking with a much higher voice. You may draw your own conclusions.

As for Cleopatra, her wagon overturns and she briefly escapes the little monsters by running into the nearby woods. We see her screaming one last time as they close in on her. The original ending had a tree, struck by lightning, fall on her, crushing her legs, and the freaks swarming over her prostrate form to exact their hideous revenge. As shown in the final film, after her scream we cut to the sideshow where she appears as one of the freak attractions. Leaving how she arrived there up to the audience’s imagination.

As the film ended, Zimba returned to snatch Uncle LaVey away, and Zombos and I breathed a sigh of relief. Returning to our claret, we pondered the vagaries of filmmaking, and how a daring director got a major studio to produce one of the most daring semi-classics of the horror cinema, long into the night.

And remember: “But for an accident at birth, you might be as they are.”

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About ILoz Zoc

  • I dig the motif.

  • As do I.

  • There are so few films, made seriously, that I truly hate and refuse to ever see again. Freaks is high on the list.

    Psycho, Repulsion, The Tenant . They are all good enough to freak me out, hard to turn off or to walk out of the theater; but beyond my sensitive nature to watch.

    There are, of course, the others that are just plain bad and worthless. Not watching them goes without saying. Why bother? Children of the Corn, Freddy 1-33, Night of the Living Dead and the other poor quality slasher and horror films with no redeeming value social or otherwise.

    Freaks is one that takes effort to avoid since it does have those flashes of brilliance but I manage.

  • Scott Butki

    Great review

    I have been wanting to see this movie for a while but can’t find a place where I can rent it.

  • Nancy

    I only got to see it accidently in college, once, and have never seen it since, either publicly or privately. It’s hard to find. What I remember of the ending, however, kind of killed all sense of horror that preceded it, because the result of the freaks’ ‘revenge’ was SO ridiculous. I wonder if I saw a vastly altered version, or what.

    Times certainly have changed. Back when Freaks was filmed, people still went to stare at those who were different; now we’re taught to avert our eyes from those ‘less fortunate’ & not to stare, let alone to go specifically to see such anomalies, behavior that is now associated with persons belonging to the lower end of the social & intellectual scale.

    BTW, one of the episodes of X-Files was set in a town of freaks, and it was not only well done, without being offensive, but gave the unusual actors (all “real” freakshow performers) some wonderful parts that were in turn humorous, menacing, serious, etc. Check it out; you’ll probably enjoy it immensely even if it isn’t as dramatic or classic as Freaks.

  • Scott, Netflix is about your best bet. It’s such an odd title, not many brick and mortar stores carry it. Cheapskate Zombos has the 2 discs at a time subscription, which works rather well except Zimba keeps screwing up the queue with non-horror romantic and artsy titles. Drives the rest of us crazy.

  • Nancy, THAT X-Files episode is my favorite! It is like you have read my mind. Many freak show performers made their living with the traveling carnivals, and when such affairs became politically incorrect, it ruined a major source of professional income for many of them. The circus and carnival social network also provided them with security and family, something many of us normals would not do. Johnny Eck was a prisoner in his rundown apartment toward the end of his life, being victimized by his neighborhood normals and poverty-level income. He only had fame and steady income when in the sideshow.

  • Nancy

    Kind of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation that was/is pretty sad. Actually, weren’t there TWO X-Files episodes set in that little Florida town, or do I misremember? I just adored that ending with the geek belching & commenting with that little smile, “it must’a been something I ate….”