The horror movie has been with us for a long time now. We might think we know the evolution of the genre pretty well. Once it was all vampires and Frankenstein until the psychotic-slasher became the industry standard. Now it’s zombies, zombies and the occasional zombie (*sigh*). But maybe things could have been different. You see, shortly after Tod Browning invented the horror-talkie with Dracula (1931), he decided to visit the genre again. But back then no-one really knew what would make a good subject for scares and what Browning came up would prove to be an evolutionary dead-end; a stunted branch on the phylogenetic tree of horror: Freaks.
The past is a foreign country, and in the ‘30s the “freak show” was still a regular part of a circus where ordinary punters would pay good money to see people who were physically unusual; people who in a lot of cases we’d just describe as having a disability today. As the whole point was to “horrify”, it’s not altogether surprising that Browning thought that this was a way forward for the fledgling genre. He even cast real sideshow performers. So as well as an array of characters with missing limbs (or even only half a body) we also have a trio of microcephaly sufferers, a pair of Siamese twins, apparent hermaphrodites and assorted human skeletons. As it happens, contemporary audiences weren’t just horrified; they also thought the whole thing rather exploitative and stayed away in droves. Freaks would remain unique.
But what do we make of it today? Well we’re hopefully a bit more accepting of disability so the first thing you have to say is that the film, for the most part, isn’t in any way horrifying. The plot involves Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a “normal” circus performer pretending to show affection for Hans (Harry Earles), the wealthy midget who owns the circus, in order to get her hands on his cash. A large proportion of the movie is simply an unusually cast soap opera. In fact, for a while it’s a teensy bit boring. But before you write in about the use of the word “midget”, it’s important to stress that we’re using that to distinguish the normally proportioned Earles-siblings from the movie’s actual dwarf (Angelo Rossitto, who you might remember a lot older in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). In fact, visually it’s hard to distinguish the Earles from children even though they’re adults. All of which makes Hans’ “romantic” scenes with Cleopatra a bit on the uncomfortable side. Because all these years later, Freaks may not be horrifying, but by golly it is an unsettling experience.
As far as being exploitative is concerned, it must be noted that Browning portrays these “freaks” as highly sympathetic and likable characters with a strong sense of community. That is, until the genuinely horrifying climax when the drunken Cleopatra shows what she really thinks of them and gives the game away. The sight of these authentically misshapen shadowy figures emerging from a thunderstorm really is something from a bad dream. It seems wrong but it’s real; nightmarish stuff. And as for their revenge? Let’s just say that Cleopatra’s fate has lost none of its power to shock.
Freaks is getting a cinema re-release on June 12th and it’s a unique part of cinema history that you really ought to see. Worth the admission to see the Human Torso (Prince Randian) lighting up his own cigarettes alone.
INFO: FREAKS (1932) / CERT: 15 / DIRCTOR: TOD BROWNING / SCREENPLAY: TOD ROBBINS / STARRING: WALLACE FORD, LEILLA KYAMS, OLGA BACLANOVA, HARRY EARLES, DAISY EARLES, JOHNNY ECK, ROSCOE ATES, DAISY AND VIOLET HILTON, SCHLITZIE, PRINCE RANDIAN, KOO KOO, PIP & ZIP, PETER ROBINSON, ANGELO ROSSITTO / RELEASE DATE: JUNE 12TH