“We accept you, one of us!”
Earlier in this blog we talked about how The Battleship Potemkin (1925) was an incredibly controversial film. Well, that film’s surrounding controversies could not even hold a candle to the uproar caused by Todd Browning’s 1932 horror-exploitation film, Freaks.The 1077 Films to See Before You Die is not a list of the greatest films ever made. If it was, Freaks would be nowhere near the list at all. But instead, it is a list of films that hold a cultural or worldly significance. Browning managed, in the early days of film, to direct a picture that offended and shocked almost everyone that watched it. That has to stand for something.
Freaks follows the story of a wicked trapeze artist named Cleopatra. She pretends to have feelings for an enamored dwarf named Hans because she found out that he was coming into some inheritance. When her scheme is thwarted by the other circus performers, she becomes the very thing that she was taking advantage of all along. Spooky, right?
So what made Freaks such a controversial film? Well, Browning decided to cast actual circus performers for the film. As you are watching the movie, you are actually seeing human beings with real disabilities being exploited on camera. This led to an enormous debate over what is considered good taste. Should these “freaks”, many of whom were unable to coherently give consent, be thrust in front of a camera to be mocked? It is an interesting question to say the least. With the imagery being so shocking at the time, the film was banned in the United States and United Kingdom for almost thirty years. The controversies surrounding the casting were so great that Todd Browning (an acclaimed horror director) had trouble ever finding work again. His career ended shortly after the release.
In the early 1960’s, Freaks began gathering a counterculture following. This led to the film being shown in several midnight theatres all throughout the country. Its popularity continued to rise in the 70’s and 80’s to the point that Freaks is now considered a horror classic. It is also considered the first film to ever achieve cult-status in the United States, and soon after MGM began using the original controversies as a selling point for the entire production.
But Freaks is much more than a bunch of disabled people on parade. It is also a deep and telling social commentary. Browning depicts the circus performers as loving and accepting people. It is the “beautiful” people who are the monsters. The film teaches us to not be afraid of our outside appearance, but rather we should fear how our personalities dictate our behavior. This is a message that should not be lost in modern times. Freaks has a very simple message underneath its controversies and eventual violence. That message is that we should love each other for who we are and not what we look like.
Finally, Freaks features one of the most talked about scenes in all of horror. The final scene in the film shows the freaks as they chant and hunt down Cleopatra. The final long shot shows all of the circus people on their hands and knees wielding knives and other weapons. This is the type of imagery that makes horror work. It was terrifying when I first saw it as a child, and it is still just as scarring to this day. I promise that the whole film, though slow at times, is made worth it by the influential final shot.
Freaks was made and released in the early 1930’s, so it is a little hard to watch. Some of the dialogue is inaudible and a lot of the film is grainy. But Todd Browning makes no apologies in his attempt to bring his film to the people. This film is in no way the most controversial film on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, but it is still one of the most daring and terrifying efforts in cinematic history. Anyone who is a fan of horror should Google this one right away. Todd Browning is a legend. Freaks is his best work.
My Next Film…..Peeping Tom (Powell. 1960)