Directed By: Tod Browning, Written By: Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon, Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova & Henry Victor.
It is hard not to imagine that Browning’s interest in making this movie, not only from a proven filmography that dabbled in the darker and more macabre subject matter, was also to exorcise his own demons from the injuries and scars (mentally and physically) from a car accident years prior.
The film has been a polarizing subject for many people. Is it exploitative? Empowering? Too disturbing because instead of make-up and effects it was actual people? The brilliant and terrifyingly powerful thing about Freaks is that Tod Browning was turning the mirror on humanity itself. The “normal” characters of Cleopatra and Hercules are the stereotypes of beauty and masculinity, but the inside of the characters are truly grotesque. The “freaks” on the other hand are physically deformed, but have a genuine love and beauty within their group that has been cast out and ostracized by the rest of the world. Their strength comes from one another, something that the “normal” and “beautiful” Cleopatra and Hercules will never conceive or understand.
The message of ‘Freaks’ is relatable and relevant to anyone that has ever felt different, alone, or an outsider. Something about the elation and excitement of the group of “freaks” chanting “One of us! One of us!” that we realize just how much it means to this group that Cleopatra has not only joined them but has married one of their own. Anybody who’s ever been on the outside as felt that in some way. Of course, Browning throws that excitement right back in our faces when a drunken Cleopatra, insults and mocks the “freaks” and openly kisses Hercules in front of her new husband Hans. Slowly poisoning Hans, Cleopatra plots with Hercules to kill her new husband and take his fortune.
Throughout the film Hans see’s Cleopatra through a rose colored lense. His view is completely clouded by her beauty and the normalcy she offers that it literally takes him being on his death bed to realize that his “freak” family has been telling him the truth about her all along. (Fun fact, the actor and actress that played Hans and Frieda, were actually brother and sister. And the actor who played Hans eventually went to gain fame on the yellow brick road as part of the lollipop guild.) The conclusion to this movie is probably one of the most horrifying and satisfying endings I have ever seen. The series of sequential shots left me with nightmares and was so bizarre I had to rewind several times to take it in. The original cut of the ending was the subject of so much controversy that people walked out of the test screenings. Originally Tod Browning wanted for Hans to have given the ok for “freaks” to kill Cleopatra. They pursue her with the amazing pan shot of them crawling towards her in the muck and rain. She screams, runs, bolt of lightning, tree branch falls, she’s helplessly trapped underneath, and the “freaks” descend in vengeance filled joy.
The original reveal of Cleopatra as the chicken woman is there, but in the unreleased version we fade over to the “strong man” Hercules, singing falsetto, having obviously been castrated. If that isn’t righteous comeuppance for the murderous, ugly, and freakish characters of Cleopatra and Hercules, I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, the studio felt that was too intense and opted for a more toned-down version.
Browning’s thought process was one that looked at society and asked, “Who are the real freaks?” Unfortunately, the film was a critical and commercial failure at the time and pretty much ruined Browning’s future film career. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it made its way into cult classic stardom. ‘Freaks’ is an incredible film that holds weight today. I’d personally recommend watching this film whenever you get the chance.
Many thanks to our guest, Chris Hicks for submitting this piece. Find him on Twitter and give him a follow by clicking the link below: