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.”
“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.
“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.”