I mean, sure, the final moments are some of the scariest and most macabre in film history, but Freaks (1932) far transcends the horror genre. In fact, it has been widely described as a stand-alone piece of cinema. And it is.
Tod Browing’s masterpiece follows a group of circus performers, namely Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze artist who, scheming with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), agrees to marry fellow performer Hans (Harry Earles) in order to con him out of his money, much to the dismay of his girlfriend Frieda (Daisy Earles).
Because it was 1932, and because it was Pre-Code, Freaks was a shocking thing when it premiered. In fact, the original 90 minutes version had to be cut down to just 64 minutes due to it being too graphic. It is thought the original is now lost, but what we were left with is more than enough. There is a lot to love, and a lot to admire. The expression ‘ahead of its time’ is often thrown around without any real meaning, but in this case, it is thouroughly accurate. Freaks’ depiction of dwarfism and people with physical deformities is more than sympathetic and one could even say it was a step towards diversity and representation. No less because they are not the titular freaks; the ‘normal-looking’ ones are. Cleo and Hercules are the villains in this tale. They are ruthless, bullying, manipulative, greedy bastards and they show no remorse whatsoever throughout the film. Contrastingly, the other performers, most of whom physically deformed in one way or another, are shown as caring, loyal, compassionate human beings with real feelings and real relationships and friendships. In fact, our introduction to many of them, in particular the ‘pinheads’ (Elvira Snow and Jenny Lee Snow) as well as Schlitze (as himself) and Half Boy (Johnny Eck) is quite heart-warming. Five minutes into the movie, we see them enjoying a nice day out, playing and laughing with each other, in the company of Madame Tretallini (Rose Dione), who, when questioned by two incredulous men who happen to stumble upon them, says that whenever she gets the chance, she likes to ‘take them into the sunshine and let them play like children’. On top of this, each of these characters, as well as the siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), Half Man-Half Woman (Josephine Joseph), Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick), The Living Torso (Prince Randian), and others, are all depicted as real characters, with their own personality and their own subplots and backstories, as well as a matter-of-fact normalization of their everyday life. Not to mention that their sense of loyalty and friendship comes through in the movie’s climax as they band together against the villainous couple, and save Hans in the process. The other ‘able-bodied’ performers, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso (Wallace Ford), also treat their fellow performers as equals, as we can see in several interactions throughout the film, the significance of which cannot be underestimated.
Freaks is classified as a Pre-Code horror, but apart from its title and its climactic scenes, there isn’t a whole lot in it that can be described as ‘horror’. It’s a tragic love story, a drama, and definitely a Pre-Code gem, but it is much more than that. Freaks was, and is, a phenomenon. It’s still every bit as a effective and heart-wrenching as the day it came out, and looking back at it with 21st Century eyes, we have no choice but to admire it and its progressiveness.