“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
As All Hallows Eve is here, it seems appropriate to close out “The Ten Percent’s” part of Biff Bam Pop‘s 31 Days of Horror with one of the most remarkable, pre-code horror films to come out of Hollywood: Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Despite the fairly standard morality play melodrama of the film’s plot, Freaks continues to have the power to horrify modern audiences, and to perfectly perch viewers on that terribly painful edge of guilt and pleasure that is voyeurism at its finest.
Director Tod Browning’s career began in the silent era, where he became well-known for working with Lon Chaney, “the Man With a Thousand Faces” on such classics as The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), but today he is perhaps most widely recognized as the director of 1931’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Both before and after Freaks, Browning showed a flair for the grotesque, which helped make his work with Chaney incredibly fruitful as Browning created one twisted character after another for Chaney to gleefully realize from the depths of his make up kit and astonishing physical abilities.
With Freaks, however, Browning would take his love of the strange, spooky, and misshapen to a level undreamed of, and simply impossible for even Chaney to create. The film tells the story of a traveling sideshow somewhere in Europe between the wars, and purports to pull back the curtain on the off-stage world of the performers: the freaks. For the most part, the sideshow performers play themselves, just fictionalized. The Siamese twins are Siamese twins. The microcephalics are microcephalics, the bearded lady, the thin man, the half-boy, the human torso, the dog-faced girl, each and every one are the real McCoy.
The plot centers around the doomed love of Hans (Harry Earles), one of the shows dwarfs, for the beautiful acrobat Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Discovering that Hans has inherited a sizable fortune, Cleo hatches a scheme to trick Hans into marrying her, after which she will poison him and make off with the loot and her real lover, the violent strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor). The plot is uncovered in time though, and the freaks take vengeance on this plot against one of their own.
There’s really not much here, but Freaks manages to take this pedestrian little plot to a whole other level by almost relegating it to the territory of background action. The majority of the film is spent showing the everyday lives of the sideshow performers, subtly transforming the viewers’ first fascinated obsession with the freaks’ physical differences into an appreciation for them has human beings, and generally kind and happy ones for all of their apparent difficulties. Cleo and Hercules, normal sized, normal shaped human beings, turn out to be the ones who are truly deformed. They are balanced by the good regular people Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford), but these two are also part and parcel of the show, and the freaks are their chosen family, while Cleo and Herc will commit murder in order to leave the life. It is the “normal people” you have to watch out for.
Which leads to one of the Best. Lines. Ever. when Venus tells Herc that:
“my people are decent circus folks, not dirty rats that would kill a freak to get his money!”
The viewer is sucked in by the freaks’ humanity, we’re with them all the way, and then, like every good morality play, it’s time for the evil-doers to pay the piper, and all of a sudden Browning jerks us right back out of that warm little glow of human fellow-feeling as the freaks come crawling, sliding, stalking silently through the dark and the rain and the mud, blades in hand, to deal out justice in a world that shows none to them. Their physical differences are underlined, even further exaggerated as they form an inexorable tide of writhing, twisted, humanity with eyes that hate. It is an enormously effective series of scenes, even today.
(Spoilers ahead, although the freakin’ film’s 82 years old, so deal with it, Sunshine).
The original ending of the film showed Cleo screaming beside a tree as the freaks approached through the storm. The tree was then hit by lightning and fell on her, crushing her legs. In the final scene, Cleo was seen as the freaks had made her: a legless, scarred human duck, raggedly quacking along in accompaniment to the soprano singing of the castrated Herc. This was deemed too horrific for release, and so the studio shot three equally unsatisfactory alternate endings and gutted some 30 more minutes of the film as objectionable as well. Even so, the film was banned for 30 years in the UK.
Freaks was a commercial failure, but became a cult classic in the 1960s, and has remained one of the most fascinating and unnerving films ever made. In fact, until recently, I would have bet good money that nothing like it could ever be done again (“American Horror Story: Freak Show,” anyone? And seriously, watch Freaks if you like AHS – they’re referencing the film every single episode thus far.) Running just 64 minutes, Freaks plays masterfully on some really dark parts of our psychology, hooking us with our innate voyeurism when it comes to the “other,” forcing us to recognize it, think we’ve overcome it, and then smacking us in the face with the fact that we’re still just meat-puppets for our most primitive lizard brains that read difference as dangerous.
Like I said, it’s always us “normals” who turn out to be the real monsters.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.