Review by John
= Highest Rating
didn't lie to ya, folks! We told you we had living, breathing
They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the
world they came.
Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one and you offend
— Sideshow carnival barker
So you call yourself a horror fan? An exploitation fan? Well,
folks, if you haven't seen Tod Browning's Freaks
then it's time to think about turning in your 3-D glasses and
"Upchuck Cup" and go rent the latest Hollywood romantic comedy.
For a seventy-two year old film (that remains banned in Sweden
to this day!), Freaks still has
the ability to offend and shock some and win over others with
its dark humor, charm, pre-Hays Code sexuality and sheer power.
Thanks to the people at Warner Brothers Freaks
is finally available on DVD, with substantial supplemental materials
to make the long wait worthwhile.
Tod Browning, the director of Dracula
with Bela Lugosi, also helmed Freaks.
Browning actually ran away with the circus at a young age and
traveled in real carnival sideshows doing various stunts and
tricks. Apparently Browning drew on these experiences to create
the atmosphere of Freaks. The source
story of a circus midget falling in love with a "big woman"
is actually derived from the short story Spurs by Tod
Robbins. This would also explain one of the alternative titles
of the film, Forbidden Love. The plot of Freaks
is, however, almost certainly secondary to the sheer spectacle
of seeing real human oddities as opposed to made-up ones. The
theme of the film that the so-called "normal" people are the
actual "freaks" and the human oddities themselves are happy
and accepting of their uniqueness is also arguably the facet
of the film that really packs a wallop. One thing is for sure:
once you've seen Freaks you will
absolutely never forget it.
The plot concerns midget Hans' (Harry Earles)
infatuation with normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga
Baclanova), despite being engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles),
another dwarf performer in the carnival. At first it seems that
Cleopatra toys and flirts with Hans for her own amusement or
to infuriate Frieda, but once Cleopatra learns that Hans is
sitting on a substantial fortune she schemes with her lover,
circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans for
his money. Charming subplots involve the flirtations and eventual
romance between circus clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and animal
trainer Venus (Leila Hyams), and Roscoe the clown's marriage
to "one" of the famous Siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton).
These subplots provide the necessary comic relief to the more
intense scenes that conclude the film and are welcome. The story,
though, is secondary to the sight of the so-called freaks themselves.
Is Browning using them just for exploitation or does he have
a higher message here? I think that he is doing a little bit
of both. Whether or not you feel that is right or wrong will
be up to you. For example, when the camera focuses on famous
Half-boy (Johnny Eck) walking with his hands to teach Phroso
a trick, when it centers on the Armless Girl eating with utensils
and drinking from a glass using her feet, when Randian the Living
Torso lights a cigarette with a wooden match in his mouth, and
anytime the film lingers on "pinhead" Schlitze, we gawk and
stare in astonishment. The plot is not advanced by these scenes,
yet, would the film still be remembered if they did not exist?
Once the freaks accept Cleopatra into their fold at the famous
Wedding Feast scene and utter the memorable "We accept you
— one of us! Gooble Gobble!", the film turns into a bona-fide
classic of any genre. The freaks dance and frolic and generally
have a good time until a drunken Cleopatra throws wine from
the "loving cup" (the freaks have been passing around and drinking
from) into the face of "little person" Angeleno (Angelo
Rossitto), berating them all as "dirty, slimy freaks!"
The film's tone turns at this point, and while I wouldn't want
to spoil its outcome to anyone reading this who has not yet
seen it, let's just say that the freaks get medieval on Cleopatra's
ass during the famous, climactic rain storm- revenge sequence.
The sight of The Living Torso, the Pinheads, and midgets crawling
through the mud, knives in their teeth or clutched in their
hands, pursuing Cleopatra and Hercules to their comeuppance
is a vision straight out of a nightmare
Brothers DVD presents Freaks in a
special edition with some great extras, chiefly an audio commentary
by film historian David J. Skal and an in-depth, hour-long documentary
covering the cast, production, and the significance of Freaks
as a groundbreaking motion picture. But how does the film itself
look and sound? The transfer is 1.33:1 standard, preserving the
aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition. Having never
owned this title before on any format other than recording it
from satellite TV airings I can't compare it to other media, yet
for a film over seventy years old it looks pretty amazing. The
image is somewhere between not too sharp and not too soft, the
blacks are solid and the picture is very clean and free of scratches
and wear or at least nothing that jumped to my attention. However,
some reason the ending does look
extremely soft; picture-wise that would be my only slight gripe.
While the Dolby mono soundtrack is
serviceable enough for a film of this vintage, due to the speech
patterns and heavy accents of some of the performers I found it
helpful to turn on the English subtitles for certain scenes. French
and Spanish subtitles are also available.
is a movie that will haunt you for days and stay with you for
life. It is a classic of horror/exploitation and should be mentioned
in the same breath as Dracula, Frankenstein,
and The Wolf Man. Arguably one
of the most important DVD releases of the year not only for horror
and cult movie fans, but for fans of all genres of film.