“You laughed at them, shuddered at them. And, yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be one as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world. But, into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves: offend one and you offend them all.”
Freaks is a strange Pre-Code horror movie that defies a lot of what you’d expect from a 30s horror movie or really any horror movie. Or really any movie. It’s a surprisingly tame feature with a disturbing ending cranking the film straight to eleven in its last five minutes. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Freaks, particularly the scenes that were apparently chopped off and never seen again for fear of unsettling audiences. The film we ended up with, although only about an hour, is still a fun movie with a lot of neat choices to chew on.
The movie concerns a troupe of circus performers with physical deformities, portrayed by actors with the same conditions. There are a few subplots, but the main concern of the movie is Hans (Harry Earles), a dwarf performer who is engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles) but is bewitched by the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is only after Hans’s money. At the climax of the film, when Cleopatra’s sinister nature comes to light, the “freaks” band together to take revenge on the “normal” performers who have mistreated and mocked them.
There’s really not any horror until the final act of the film, which leaves the majority of the movie as a strange collection of slice-of-life cinema depicting the lives of the deformed performers. There’s a lot of heart to these scenes, and I think the film has the best of intentions in its depiction of the titular performers. Great horror has often been a tool for minority groups to reclaim power through depiction and through telling their stories, and I think Freaks gets a lot of that across, even if the performers are often just played for spectacle.
I’m fascinated by the chopped footage that reduced the movie to such a meager run time. I can only assume a lot of content had to be cut and that a huge chunk of the movie was devoted to horror, because we’re left with a lot of first act material that a horror movie would typically just use to set up thrills. The pacing is definitely awkward, but I actually think it’s fun in a twisted sort of way, as if the film is playing with expectations for an entire hour before finally delivering. And when it delivers, dealing just desserts to the movie’s villain, it feels oh so satisfying.
Freaks is a fun piece of horror history, and you can definitely feel the influence of Tod Browning in the bits we’re still allowed to enjoy. I’d love to see the original cut someday, but it’s been destroyed to my understanding, so I guess we’ll just have to imagine.
Films Left to Watch: 853