Few films fit into the category of ‘cult film’ quite as well as Tod Browning’s controversial masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Due to its use of real freak show performers and its ‘unwholesome’ themes, the film was almost universally reviled by critics and audiences alike. Already a major director thanks to a string of silent horror hits and the classic talkie version of Dracula (1931), Browning never recovered. His handful of post-Freaks films were hampered by the limitations of the Motion Picture Production Code or suffered extensive studio interference, like 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, and the director finally retired in 1939.
For modern viewers the idea of using real-life genetic anomalies and the disabled in a horror film would seem at the very least tasteless and exploitative; even in Browning’s day it was considered excessive. But from the outset it is clear that the ‘freaks’ are not the horror content here; this is not like the later Rondo Hatton films, where Hatton’s deformities were intended to shock and horrify, made synonymous with villainy and violence. Instead Browning – who spent part of his youth working in a circus and befriended many of the performers – shows us these people in their everyday lives, focussing on their relationships. Although the sight of a man with no arms and legs lighting a cigarette by himself (apparently, the original cut featured him rolling the cigarette too) is certainly bizarre, it’s not presented as ridiculous or amusing.
The only characters given a negative presentation in Freaks are the film’s villains, seductive trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and her lover, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Together they hatch a plan for Cleopatra to marry little person Hans (Harry Earles) – and then murder him for his sizeable inheritance. When the other performers realise that Cleopatra has a murderous agenda, they punish her and Hercules in a terrible fashion. There are other subplots, most obviously the developing romance between Venus (Leila Hyams, Island of Lost Souls) and clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), but Cleopatra’s scheme is the main focus of the film. Even given the film’s short, 60-minute running time (the full 90-minute cut is now considered lost), there isn’t quite enough story here, and the pacing is quite slow.
However, the two key scenes are more than memorable enough to outweigh any minor flaws. The first is the notorious wedding feast (never entirely comfortable with sound pictures, Browning prefaces the scene with a silent-style title card). The assembled troupe try and accept Cleopatra into their community, only to see her flirting outrageously with Hercules and drunkenly giving vent to her true feelings about the ‘dirty, slimy freaks!’ Even more effective is the climactic storm scene, as the troupe of knife-wielding performers slowly descend upon Cleopatra and Hercules. Their actual punishment is not shown; Browning intended to have the strongman castrated, but (unsurprisingly) that did not make it into the final cut. Freaks is not easy viewing, or a pleasant film, but it is far more sensitive than the title would suggest. With the equally controversial Island of Lost Souls, it’s one of the strongest, most memorable horror films of the pre-Code era.