Freaks is a 1932 American Pre-Code horror film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a cast mostly composed of actual carnival (funfair) performers. The film was based on Tod Robbins' 1923 short story "Spurs". Director Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks," rather than using costumes and makeup. Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance. The central story is of a self-serving trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who seduces and eventually marries a sideshow midget, Hans (Harry Earles), after learning of his large inheritance.
It’s one of the most controversial movies of its or any era, and it stands as possibly the only film ever quoted by Lyle Lovett in another movie.
That famous quote is, of course, ‘One of us! One of us!’ (Lyle ommitted the ‘Gooble gobble’ that precedes it.) The movie is Freaks, Tod Browning’s bizarre 1932 film that takes place behind the scenes at a circus freakshow.
It’s a simple story, told in 62 spare minutes: Wicked Russian trapeze artist Cleopatra marries the freakshow’s proprietor Hans (a midget), simply to get his money. With her real boyfriend Hercules (the strongman), they plan to steal his riches and escape the circus life. But Cleopatra (who’s otherwise freakless) suddenly snaps during the freaks’ initiation ceremony (where the famed lines are delivered), and suddenly runs away. The freaks chase her through the rainy night… when they catch up to her, horrors await.
Director Tod Browning (Dracula, 1931), was a real circus contortionist himself, and he called on his old co-workers to populate the film. There’s not a traditional actor among them, just midgets, limbless people, odd-looking types, and a pair of ‘pinhead’ microcephalics (later immortalized in the comics as ‘Zippy the Pinhead’). There doesn’t appear to be much of a script either, just a basic framework of a story upon which random dialogue and scandalous visuals can be laid. The exploitation and presumed horror of these characters led Freaks to be banned in a number of countries after it was released. In Britain it was actually re-rated from ‘R’ to ‘X’ in the 1960s!
Today you can relive the Freaks experience on DVD, though that’s a cryptic and somewhat maddening affair. Putting its scandal aside, there’s not a lot to Freaks, unlike Dracula, Browning isn’t trying to scare you with atmosphere and plot, he’s trying to horrify you with shock tactics. That’s pretty pioneering for 1932, but modern desensitization to such things (hell, we have Paris Hilton on TV) mutes the freak-out effect almost completely.
The new DVD includes a documentary about the film that’s longer than Freaks itself, plus a short bit about the original ending and some of its variants.