Friday, 5 October 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Freaks (1932)

I don't have as much reading time nowadays as I used to. That's by choice. I watch a hell of a lot more movies, and I tend to also review a lot of them. So between that and work and, you know, other stuff that takes up my time I just tend to leave reading until I find myself with a free 15 minutes. But I used to be a voracious reader, from a very young age. And it helped that, as a child, my mother had books piled up all around our home. One of those books was about the lives of famous "freaks". I didn't actually read that book, but I did look at the section of photographs. I saw General Tom Thumb (named because of his diminutive stature), a man with no lower half of his body, and Prince Randian. This last figure was the one that stuck with me the most. He had no arms or legs (I believe the book referred to him as "The Human Caterpillar") but was shown in photographs making his own cigarettes. Having been fascinated by these people, I am very surprised that I didn't get around to this classic Tod Browning movie until I was in my late twenties. I think I may have still been silly enough to think that a film from the 1930s couldn't possibly retain the power it had all those years ago. I was wrong.

Prince Randian is not a main character in Freaks, but he does make a brief appearance. As does someone credited as Half Boy (played by Johnny Eck). And probably a number of other people who were featured in that book. This film is all about people who make their living as circus sideshow attractions, as the title none-too-subtly tells you. It gives you a glimpse into the lives of many extraordinary characters, focusing on the main storyline of a midget named Hans (Harry Earles) and his love for a trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra doesn't love Hans, yet she figures that she can pretend to for a while until she gets her hands on his large inheritance. And she can make that happen sooner by poisoning him. Because, despite her outward physical appearance, Cleopatra is the ugliest character in this film. Greedy, callous, manipulative, and murderous. She's also pretty blatant about her motivation and intentions, which allows viewers to sit back and wait for her eventual comeuppance.

Written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon, Freaks remains a wild and incredible film, even by the standards of today. The characters being shown onscreen are fascinating (as well as those mentioned you get to see the Siamese twins named Daisy and Violet Hilton, the human skeleton named Peter Robinson, and Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow playing "Pinheads"), the main storyline is complemented by some enjoyable subplots, and you have the famous utterance of "one of us, one of us". Cleopatra may be written as a bit of a pantomime villain, at times, but that's the way it has to be to take everything where it needs to go for that intense finale.

Director Tod Browning must have known that he was going to shock audiences at the time, and kudos to him for staying true to his vision, even if it did ultimately bring his directorial career to a premature end (he is only credited on a couple of films after this one, which is a great shame indeed).  Bringing together such an authentic cast may have led to quite a range of quality in the acting, although it has to be said that most of the main players are very good in their roles, but it also makes it a lot harder to accept the movie as JUST a movie. This remains an experience that is at times bewildering, at times infuriating, and at times absolute nightmare fuel.

I am sure that others have discussed this more thoroughly, it's another one of those occasions when I suspect that adding my own review of an established classic on to an overflowing pile is probably redundant, but I will just take this opportunity to encourage every horror movie fan to seek this out. Considering how influential it is, and how impactful it remains, you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you dismissed it as being too old or too tame for your more modern sensibilities.


This shiny disc is available to buy.
Or, in American territories, here.

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