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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Retro Review: Freaks


These words will never fail to bring a chill to the spine of any fan of classic horror, and with good reason. For most of us, when we think Tod Browning, we think the 1931 Dracula. And rightfully so, the movie is a masterpiece. But nearly as much a masterpiece was the unfairly maligned Freaks, which came out the following year to critical outrage and ridicule, and box office apathy that was the result of a crippled distribution deal thanks to the "objectionable" subject matter.

This week, let's take an unflinching look at one of horror's true underrated pleasures, a film that was by far the most controversial of its era, and never quite got the respect or attention it deserved.

Right off the bat, the single most striking thing about the picture is its use of actual sideshow freaks as the carnival's unforgettable cast of characters. We have many of the most famous "celebrity freaks" of the day on hand, including little Harry & Daisy Earles, the infamous Hilton sisters, Johnny Eck, and the endearing "pinhead" known as Schlitze. This was a conscious decision on Browning's part, not to use actors--and it upset quite a lot of people. It was a time of more fragile sensibilities, for better or worse, and in the case of Browning's excellent film, worse was definitely the case.

Many were disgusted at what they perceived as exploitation, yet a closer look at the film demonstrates that Browning and screenwriter Clarence Aaron Robbins's goal is to demonstrate how the supposedly "normal" people can be much more monstrous and evil under the right circumstances than anyone who simply happens to look monstrous on the surface. Alas, much of that subtlety was lost on the censors.

Freaks gives us a unique and rare glimpse into a world shrouded in mystery, showing us a more-or-less accurate portrayal of life on the road for this collection of human oddities. Many of the performances are quite striking for folks who have never been called upon to pull off high drama before, especially from the poignant Earles, dwarf siblings playing husband and wife. And there is also a bona fide actor or two thrown into the mix as well, including in the role of Phroso the clown, Wallace Ford--who Universal lovers will recall from his comic relief part in The Mummy's Hand.

The movie is filled with unforgettable and often voyeuristic imagery, including armless Frances O'Connor eating dinner with her feet, the childbirth of the bearded lady, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl's bizarre dance, and of course "Living Torso" Prince Randian lighting a cigarette despite having no arms or legs.

Tod Browning was often accused of being trapped in the mindset of a silent film director, never being able to fully embrace the changes inherent in making talkies. To a certain extent this is true, as his stagey setups and often overly deliberate technique make evident. And yet, in Freaks, there are amazing moments where Browning's silent expertise comes into play as a positive--most notably the unforgettable wedding scene that is the centerpiece of the film, and plays out in such a way that we completely understand what is happening on a visual basis alone.

Yet the film was a public relations disaster for MGM, effective scaring the studio away from horror projects. Browning's career also never quite recovered from the stigma. In fact, it wasn't until the movie was rediscovered during the late-night drive-in craze of the 1950s and '60s that it began to be appreciated as the classic it is.

Freaks is highly recommended for any casual fan of early horror who has until now confined themselves to the Frankensteins and Draculas of the world. Here is a film ahead of its time, presenting horror not in the form of supernatural monsters, but lurking in the hearts of regular human beings. And the last scene is one of the all-time WTF moments in the history of the genre, so consider yourself warned!


BJ Colangelo said...

GREAT review. One of my favorite films, on every level.

B-Sol said...

Thanks! Yeah, I can watch it anytime, definitely my weirdest "comfort movie"...

Anonymous said...

Cult Favorite! Should be in everyones top 10 DVDs!

KT Grant said...

Isn't Freaks considered to be one of the best horror movies of all time? I was lucky to find this at my local library and make a dvd copy.

B-Sol said...

I would definitely put it on my all-time best-of list (and I have).

Wings1295 said...

I remember the first time I was able to watch this film. I was so nervous, having heard how strange and unnerving a movie it was.

Still love it to this day. Love seeing the real "freaks" of the time, sort of trapped in a time capsule.

Just a great movie.

Zachary Kelley said...

This ranks among my favorite films of all time. When I finally purchased Freaks on DVD I watched it on a loop for a while, and no matter how many times I watch it it never fails to disturb. My personal favorite image is the Human torso crawling along with a knife in his teeth. I don't know how he was going to use it or what he was going to do, but I have no doubt that I would not want to be the intended victim.

You hit the nail on the head with you comments on portraying the "normal" people as the monsters. The title Freaks is misleading in it's simplicity, and I throughly think that any fan of genre film would do themselves a disservice if they did not spend some quality time with Browning's film.

Samuel Wilson said...

On a lark I rented Freaks and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for some friends one Halloween years ago. The consensus was that Freaks was the more disturbing film. That final chase scene is still chilling.

B-Sol said...

Couldn't have said it better myself, Bug!

movie scary said...

Great review, classic black and white film.

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