Theatre audiences in 1932 had no idea they of what was in store for them with this film. In fact, when test screenings were done, a woman in attendance later threatened to sue the film studio, MGM, because she thought the film caused her a miscarriage. Folks across the pond could not even see the film for 30 years after its release due to a ban on it. This was Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Browning, who did Dracula, made Freaks his baby. It is, at its heart, a love story steeped in revenge. Its plot? Fairly standard. A female trapeze artist named Cleopatra loves a sideshow midget (“little person” now). Well, what really she loves his inheritance. The other circus “freaks,” not knowing how shallow this woman really is, accept her as one of their own at a dinner underneath the big top. (“One of us,” they chant.) Wine flows, and so do Cleopatra’s secrets. She’s been having an affair, and the freaks are none too happy … especially when Cleopatra, in a drunken state, belittles them. And so hatred is born. During a stormy night, Cleopatra and her lover are attacked by the freaks, and Cleopatra is left hideously mutilated … forever becoming “one of them.” (The original film, which was extensively cut, also had the freaks castrating her lover.)
So what sent audiences over the edge? The freaks were not the products of special effects or makeup. They were real sideshow performers. The Living Skeleton. Siamese Twins. Pinheads. The Half Boy. For audiences not yet exposed to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, seeing an armless and legless man crawl through the mud toward them with a knife in his mouth was more than enough to cause panic attacks. Perhaps they were also disturbed by the film’s message: A “normal” human could be even worse than one of these “exhibit pieces.”
Browning’s film cost him his career, and that is a shame. If you watch it today, even in cut form (which, to my knowledge, is the only version of the film that now exists), it still packs a punch. It is simply a really good story. It’s complex. It’s disturbing. It’s chilling. It is mob mentality at its worst, and protective spirit at its finest. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It is now considered a classic, but back in 1932 it was one of the first films to truly shock an audience … and continues to do so today.
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