Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

Oh, what a disturbing but fascinating contradiction of a movie.  An endless disclaimer before the film tells us that the titular freaks and those like them are no less human than you and I, and yet at the same time we’re basically told to pity them, for they can’t help their lot in life.  I suppose we’re supposed to see the humanity in these people, and yet Tod Browning shows you their physical abnormalities completely unabashed, their Otherness 100% in the forefront.  And most distressing, we’re clearly meant to empathize with them, and yet their final act of vengeance on the greedy and conniving trapeze artist is cruel and terrible (she did have it coming, but still, her final fate is absolutely shocking – the result of an act you’d hope no human would commit on another, no matter how warranted).  “Freaks” is flawed, and uncomfortable to watch, and wildly politically incorrect, even (or perhaps especially) by today’s standards, and morally ambiguous…but damned if it isn’t an incredibly interesting early piece of cinema.

To be fair, I do think Browning was sincere in trying to portray his ragtag group of “actors” in a positive light and proving them to be much more than unfortunate losers of the genetic lottery, which is why I’m hesitant to call “Freaks” an “exploitation film.”  And indeed, “Freaks” is only an hour long, and yet the majority of that is devoted to simple scenes of the typical domesticity of these people going through their everyday lives.  We see the child-like dwarves Hans and Frieda going through the daily squabbles of an engaged couple as Frieda chastises Hans and his amorous eye towards the lovely trapeze artist.  We see the siamese twins Daisy and Violet and their cynical treatment of one’s jealous fiance.  We see one man, essentially nothing more than a head attached to a giant sock, roll and light a cigarette with his mouth while chatting with his buddy.  We see the “pinhead” sisters, a dwarf and a legless man (the “children”) as they play and frolic amongst nature.  We see everyone united in celebration on Hans and Cleopatra’s (the villianous trapeze artist) wedding night, drinking and carousing as one.  They’ve become such a close-knit community, a unit of one, that the commonality of physical abnormality has become irrelevant: they’re just friends and neighbors, carnival wagons subbing for traditional houses, and that’s where Browning’s original goal succeeds.  If so many scenes of banal daily life among friends and family become dull and repetitive (which they do), perhaps that’s the highest compliment one can give to Browning’s vision – an absolute inundation of everyday foibles of the residents of a particular neighborhood would indeed be boring as hell, and the foibles of those in this neighborhood of traveling wagons ain’t that far off.  So looking at it that way, a veil has been lifted and we see these “freaks” as relatively normal, dull people with normal, dull problems.

But then, you remember that you are looking at some pretty fucked up things.  As soon as you think your mind has humanized these people, you see “Freaks” for what it is: an incredibly bizarre little movie where deformed people are dancing and giggling in a country glen, Hans and Frieda have those high, elf-like voices that just make you giggle, and these “freaks” whom Browning’s worked so hard to humanize go into the famous “gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you one of us!” chant…and oh yeah, set out to viciously cripple a cruel yet defenseless woman.  I ask you, am I cruel or politically incorrect for finding images like the one above jarringly surreal or bizarre (and effectively so when put in context)?  Browning can admirably try to humanize these so-called freaks all he wants, but in the end they’re still portrayed as Others, especially after finding out about Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules’ scheme to steal Hans’ inherited fortune and really bare their teeth (quite literally in the case of that sock-man, knife-in-mouth as he slithers with his companions in pursuit of Cleopatra…I mean really, what the fuck is he gonna do with a knife? 😆 ).  Humanized friends and neighbors become a vengeful, animal-like mob; their vengeance is stomach-churning, and yet we’re supposed to root for them all the way.  Earlier boring scenes of banal conversations allegedly signify the inner humanity of the freaks.  The late climax of the mob pursuing Cleopatra through the pouring rain is an outstanding piece of expressionist, frightening filmmaking by Browning…but one whose effectiveness mainly relies on the sudden intimidating fearsomeness of the crawling, funny looking characters we were until this point supposed to see as fully human.  Notice all the contradictions yet?  “Freaks” is pretty much one big contradiction of ideology, which is probably why it’s so controversial even to this day.  

But, in a way, isn’t it great that you can see a movie from so many different angles, from the physical vileness of the freaks, especially as vigilante mob, to the emotional vileness of Cleopatra?   Wade through a terrible script, terrible acting (though not at all the fault of the performers, none of them professional actors), and a slow, awkward pace (for an hour-long movie no less!), and you can see “Freaks” as flawed but attention-grabbing… and whatever your mindset for the day tells you to see.  It could be a love-thy-neighbor message movie, revenge movie, horror flick, romance, or exploitative “monster” movie, with an ending either uplifting or unsettling, all depending on your mood or pleasure.  Beauty really can come in any shape or size.


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