The reputation for Freaks is legendary among film buffs. Rumored to have been banned since audiences were far too disturbed by the film’s content to remain in theaters more than a few weeks, the film was only officially banned in the United Kingdom and shelved by MGM in the United States. Nevertheless, a heavily edited version of Freaks become popular in midnight showings at various small venues. The film has since been declared culturally significant by the National Film Registry, paving the way for wider acceptance. A Dvd was released in 2004, which is what I viewed for this review.
I knew Freaks by reputation only. Cheap VHS copies had been floating around the comic book convention circuit for as long ass I had been frequenting them, but I never saw anything more than box cover art. We are talking about a time period in which I was in late elementary to junior high age, a period in which I was particularly sensitive about my disabilities and the reaction of other people to them. I was not emotionally ready fo see this sort of thing.
Now that I have, I am wondering if I or anyone else can truly be prepared to watch Freaks. It is a horrifying disturbing film which destroyed the career of director Tod Browng, a man who had worked with the great Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi, but still absolutely fascinating.
If you do not know the film by reputation, perhaps you have heard the most frequent pop cultural reference from the film--someone clapping while chanting, “One of us! One of us!” in context, it is an insult to the person being taunted because he or she is now part of an undesirable group. Most recently, Howard made this joke in reference to Penny hanging out with the geeks on The Big Bang Theory.
So what is the big issues with Freaks? There are several, actually. First, Browning cast actual deformed people to play the sideshows freaks. While the film makes an effort to humanize the deformed people, often by showing how they deal with slice of life situations, there is a highly exploitive vibe running throughout. Second, there are no redeeming characters. The general plot is that normal people are ugly on the inside, but the freaks are good. But by the end, we learn that everyone is unspeakably cruel. Finally, the ending is insanely violent even by today’s standards. I can only imagine what audiences thought in 1932.
The plot is a trapeze artist named Cleopatra and a strongman named Hercules plot to steal the dwarf’s fortune. He is smiyyen with Cleopatra,, even though she is a beautiful, tall woman. She pretends to return his love so they can get married, then poisons him once she is his wife. Pone of the freaks overhears her talking about her and Hercules’ plan to run away with the money, so the freaks plot revenge.
In the climax, the freaks attack Cleopatra and Hercules with any sharp object they can get ahold. It is strongly implied they castrate Hercules and maim Cleopatra until she becomes a freak dubbed the duck Woman herself. So they live out their days among the freaks for whom they had nothing but contempt as one of them.
There are a half dozen or so scenes in Freaks that will linger with you as aggressively as the revelation of what Victor has become in Se7en most notably, the climax, in which all sorts of deformed freaks crawl towards Hercules and Cleopatra with knives held in any way they are capable. You lose all sympathy for them subsequently because of their brutality. Hence, there are no good guys ultimately in the film.
It ends with you feeling unsettled about everything you have just seen. Yet, I recommen watching it once. Once is all you will ever need to experience this dark, dark film. if you need an expert's opinion, legend has it the Siamese twins entered the MGM cafeteria at the same time fledgling screenwriter F. Scott Fitagerald was eating lunch. Upon seeing them, Fitzgerald rushed to the bathroom to vomit. So you do not have to take my word for it alone.
Rating: *** (out of 5)