Now regarded as a landmark film but virtually disowned by MGM when it was first produced, Tod Browning's film, set in a travelling circus, works as an old-fashioned morality play against avarice. Browning used a collection of handicapped actors and performers for the circus community, which initially welcomes the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra into their group when she marries midget circus owner, Hans. However, as it becomes clear that Cleopatra is only after Hans' money, and is conducting an affair with the strongman, the close-knit clan of 'freaks' plan a revenge.
One of the most famous, most shocking and, for much of its existence, most elusive of cult films, Tod Browning's Freaks remains worthy of its dubious top billing by literary critic Leslie Fiedler as the greatest of all Freak movies. At the centre of the story are two circus midgets, Hans and Frieda (already well known in the 1930s through film and advertising appearances as Harry and Daisy Earles), whose marriage plans are blasted when Hans becomes the target of the aerialist Cleopatra's plot to marry him then kill him off for his money. During what is certainly one of the most notorious scenes in cult film history, the wedding party of freaks ritually embrace Cleopatra as one of us. Through her undisguised horror at this and her gruesome punishment by the freaks, the film bluntly confronts viewers about our awkwardness about different bodies while simultaneously stirring up fear and alarm in familiar horror-movie style. Better known for the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931), Brownings showmanship was equally a product of the circus (he was himself an adolescent contortionist in a travelling show). His meshing of circus and cinema--two dangerous entertainments--produces Freaks' uniquely disquieting effect.
Startled and indignant preview audiences forced the producers to add an explanatory foreword to the film but even this crackles with sensationalism as it veers between sideshow-style sympathy and fright warning. None the less, protests and local censorship ensued and the film never reached the mass audience for which it was made. Still, some of the real stars of the midway Ten-in-One shows of the 1920s and 30s (Johnny Eck, Daisy and Violet Hilton the Siamese twins, Prince Randian, the Hindu Living Torso) are showcased here as themselves and it is their undeniably real presence in what is otherwise familiar fictional terrain which is still so provocative. --Helen Stoddart
Fictional film based on the true life experiences of circus sideshow 'freaks' made in the 1930's. The film was edited for American distributionand banned in England for over 30 years. However, recently, it has taken on cult status for it's campy plot and the real circus entertainers who appear in the film. Directed by horror film master Tod Browning.