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Film Recommendation – Freaks

A couple of weeks back when I recommended THE OLD DARK HOUSE, I mentioned FREAKS. I’m sure most of you have heard of FREAKS but, just in case you haven’t, and in the interests of completeness, I thought I’d add it to my long list of film recommendations.

A beautiful circus trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.

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FREAKS is a remarkable film. Based on a novel (SPURS by TOD ROBBINS), and largely unseen for many years following its release, it’s most notable for its sympathetic presentation of its cast. At its heart is a relatively straightforward story – a beautiful woman and her strongman lover attempt to swindle a young dwarf out of the vast sum of money he’s just inherited – and its message is clear: what makes a person a freak, an outcast, a monster, is as much their personality and character as it is their physical appearance.

The film makes for unquestionably uncomfortable viewing. I’ve seen it many times (I even had the honour of hosting a screening of it at Birmingham’s ELECTRIC CINEMA back in 2014), and I still find it a hard watch. The first and penultimate scenes (added as a result of studio interference – more about that in a second) follow a hawker leading a crowd of punters through a freakshow. Such events would never be allowed today, and rightly so. And yet, as the film progresses and the individual cast members’ differences are exposed under the camera’s unblinking gaze, you realise that, by watching, in some ways you’ve become as guilty as the people who paid for access back in the day. I’m sure this was intentional.

The opening twenty minutes of FREAKS is little more than a montage of scenes of the characters’ daily lives. We see the conjoined twins with their shared personal experiences and total lack of individual privacy, a group of young girls with microcephaly playing together, and various cast members with missing limbs eating dinner and carrying out other day-to-day tasks. It feels uncomfortable and voyeuristic to watch, and yet it also serves the purpose of increasing the impact of the film’s genuinely shocking ending. And you can’t talk about FREAKS without mentioning that ending. The brevity of the film means you’re there almost before you’re realised, and all the forced jollity and awkward humour of the movie’s first half disappears in an instant. The circus takes a nightmarish turn as the caravan of wagons becomes stranded in a storm, and the sideshow people exact their collective revenge on the trapeze artist and the strongman. It’s brutal and horrific.

FREAKS received a critical mauling after its initial release in 1932 and effectively ended the career of director Tod Browning, who’d previously found extraordinary success with his adaptation of DRACULA starring BELA LUGOSI. It’s hard to imagine the impact a film like FREAKS would have had on audiences back then who’d never seen anything like it (other than in the flesh at sideshows and carnivals), though there’s anecdotal reports of walkouts and worse. To say that it’s a landmark horror movie is an understatement. It’s another pre-Code film, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have been made if there’d been any consideration of censorship or other restrictions. Incredibly, the original 90-minute version was said to have had an even more brutal ending, which was lost when the film was hacked down to just over an hour’s duration by the studio. The missing footage is, unfortunately, gone for good.

People still think of FREAKS as an exploitation flick and, to an extent, it clearly is. Even the title feels exploitative today. It’s far much more than that,, and I urge you to seek out a copy of this important film if you haven’t already.