This pre-Code horror drama film is so unbelievably beautiful, but was deemed deeply disturbing and controversial on its release and was even banned in various countries for a long time, although it enjoys a huge cult following now and the title of perhaps one of the best films ever made.

Director Tod Browning, whose biggest credits besides FREAKS are the 1931 version of DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi and the 1927 ‘lost’ film, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT starring Lon Chaney, was so fascinated by circus and carnival life that he ran away to join a travelling circus at the tender age of sixteen. FREAKS is set in a travelling sideshow in which so-called ‘normal’ people mingle with dwarves and other ‘freaks.’  

Cleopatra, the carnival’s beautiful, full-sized trapeze queen, decides to seduce, marry and then murder Hans, a handsome little person, when she hears that he has inherited a fortune and is filthy rich.

She gets her man, although in order to do so, she has to ride roughshod over Hans’s pretty little fiancée Clara, a stunning blonde little person like Hans. Hans and Clara are played by a pair of showbiz siblings, by the way, which is why they look so perfectly matched for each other.

Cleopatra, laughing up her sleeve at the dwarves’ expense, has a lover, Hercules, the carnival strongman. Together, they plot to get hold of Hans’s money. A big wedding feast is held for Cleo and Hans. All the ‘freaks’ and ‘normals’ are in attendance together, and the ‘freaks,’ led by Angeleno the dwarf, very generously decide to take Cleopatra to their collective bosom by sharing a loving cup together.

‘We accept her, gooble-gobble, one of us,’ they chant in unison as they pass around and drink from the loving cup. Cleopatra then makes a very bad mistake. She’s disgusted at the thought of being accepted by such grotesque human anomalies, nature’s ‘mistakes,’ as she views them, and she’s misguided enough to throw their good wishes, and their loving cup, back in their collective faces…

The revenge of the freaks is truly terrible. Despite this, though, they are portrayed as kinder, more loving and more affectionate than the so-called normals, with the exception of Venus and Phroso, Hercules’s former girlfriend who got wise to his bullshit and is now dating Phroso, a clown.

The interactions of the freaks are shown to be the normal, everyday activities of regular, full-sized people. Clara, Hans’s fiancée before Cleopatra gets her claws into him, is portrayed hanging her washing on the line while unburdening herself of her boyfriend woes about Hans to her ‘big person’ friend, the sympathetic Venus.

The Bearded Lady gives birth to the Human Skeleton’s child, showing us that people who look differently to us have the exact same physical desires, lust for sex and the urge to have children and a family as the rest of us. The Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet, each of whom is engaged to a different bloke, could have told us that!

Some of the other so-called ‘freaks’ include the microcephalic but sunny-tempered Schlitze, the pinheads Zip and Pip, Johnny Eck the half-man, Frances O’Connor, the armless girl who does everything, from eating and drinking to writing, with her feet, Prince Randian the Living Torso (born with no arms and no legs, a symptom of tetra-amelia syndrome which would normally cause the sufferer to die at birth or shortly afterwards) and Josephine Joseph, Half-Woman, Half-Man.

Every one of the freaks is shown as being affectionate and loyal towards his fellow carnies or sideshow pals, and, indeed, they have a very strict code of morality and fidelity towards each other. Most of all, they stand up for their own. If you offend one, you offend all, which is why Cleopatra has such a terrifying experience at the hands of the freaks hell-bent on vengeance for the poor duped and cuckolded Hans.

It’s the greedy, grasping Cleopatra and the violent, money-crazed Hercules who are the villains here, and not the freaks, who are portrayed as gentle, fun-loving, good-natured and honest throughout. For this reason, I think that Tod Browning’s film is much more compassionate towards these human anomalies than it is exploitative.

FREAKS more or less ended his career, though, and was only allowed to be shown in theatres after thirty minutes of the more ‘distasteful’ bits had been ruthlessly excised out. It was initially a box-office flop, and garnered poor reviews.

As I said earlier, that’s all changed now and the film is hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, in much the same way as Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM has gone from being similarly reviled to lauded. The artist’s genius isn’t always recognised in his lifetime, sadly.

The last twenty or so years of Browning’s life were spent in miserable alcoholic seclusion after the death of his beloved wife Alice in 1944. He died in 1962 from cancer of the larynx, by now completely estranged from the Hollywood establishment that had made him a star. He probably died thinking he was a failure. A failure? The man responsible for bringing us LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, the Bela Lugosi DRACULA and FREAKS? Not on your nelly.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her new book, THIRTEEN STOPS EARLIER, is out now from Poolbeg Books:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books:
The sequel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS LATER,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books: