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on 4 February 2006
"We'll make her one of us"- say the Freaks, yet ironically that statement is already true as it is the "normals" who are the real freaks.
When Hans the midget first catches sight of the lovely Cleopatra, he thinks she is the most beautiful "normal" he has ever seen. She treats it as joke and flirts with him to poke fun at him, but when she finds out he has inherited a large sum of money, she hoodwinks him into marrying her, and with the help of Hercules her strong man lover, she plots kill him. All the other freaks, including; Frieda the dwarf, the Bearded Lady, the half boy, the living torso, the half woman/half man,the pin heads, Koo-Koo the bird girl, the stork woman, the living skeleton and the armless wonders can not except her as one of them.
It is finally on their wedding night, when the Freaks learn that the whole thing is a hoax, when Cleo is repulsed and insulted by the freaks' propsition she is now one of them having married Hans. The following evening the Freaks witness her trying to poison Hans, and plot a shocking, terrifying revenge, in an attempt to really make her one of them which is the code of the freaks: "offend one, you offend them all".
The wedding scene is a prime example of excellent use of "mise en scene", with the bird girl dancing atop the table, and the Freaks' chanting of " one of us, one of us...gooble, gobble..." while passing round "the loving cup of wine".
The revenge scene however has to steel the title of one of the best scenes in cinematic history, with the freaks crawling in the pouring rain, chasing Cleo and Hercules through the woods. What makes it even more scary is that the viewer sees hardly anything, therefore the terror relies solely on imagination to decide what happened.
To conclude, this is a cult/horror/drama classic which needs a place in all DVD collections and proves tht you should'nt judge a book by its cover.
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on 13 July 2007
You will never see another piece of cinematic history like this one. Some will say this is sick ( like my gf) but take it for what it is.
Fantastic acting, outstanding directing and moving to boot. It starts as a freak show, and ends as heart churning classic.
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For years I had heard about the legendary Tod Browning film "Freaks" that so upset audiences it was banned in Boston and Great Britain. I had read the short story "Spurs" on which it was based and when the film was finally screened on campus I talked my roommate into going with me. Most of the people sitting around us knew nothing about the film and when I told them about it everybody started to get nervous. Then the film began...and we all loved it! My roommate and I both had crushes on Daisy Earles who plays Frieda in the film, opposite her brother Harry as Hans.
The story is quite simple: Hans and Frieda are a pair of midgets in love, but Hans thinks that Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) the bareback rider is beautiful. Cleopatra plays with Hans' affections until she learns he has money. Over the objections of her boyfriend, Hercules (Henry Victor) the freak show strongman, she accepts Hans' proposal. During the wedding feast when the freaks accept her into their ranks, she makes it clear how much she despises them all. But when Hans starts to become ill because of the poison she is feeding him, the freaks decide it is time to take matters into their own hands. The film's climax, when the freaks chase Cleopatra and Hercules during a rainstorm, is truly chilling, although Cleopatra's final fate is as unreal as it is ironic (and was supposed to be even worse: but the scene of Hercules singing soprano in Madame Tetralini's new sideshow--think about it--was too intense for early audiences and was cut).
All Browning really did to terrify audience was to include real freaks in his film, such as Daisy and Violet Hilton the Siamese Twins, Schlitze the Pinhead Girl, Josephine Joseph the Half-Woman/Half-Man, Johnny Eck the Half Boy, Frances O'Connor the Turtle Girl, Peter Robinson the Living Human Skeleton, Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady, Koo Koo the Bird Girl, Martha Morris the Armless Wonder, and Randion the Living Torso, who rolls his own cigarettes despite having neither arms nor legs. The original short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins had a midget falling for a bareback rider who marries him for his money and at their wedding feast puts her husband on her shoulders and boasts that she will carry him across France. With the aid of his large, angry dog he forces her to do just that. Browning's film expands the scope of the story into something more complex and much more satisfying.
However, the film clearly portrays the "Freaks" with dignity. As Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) tells someone, "These are all God's children." The true monsters in this film are the "normal" human beings, who receive their just desserts. But when "Freaks" was relased it was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years (and is still banned in Sweden). During that period Browning was blackballed in Hollywood. He had promised MGM the ultimate scary movie and given the reaction you have to conclude that he delivered. The film was originally intended to have what we would now consider an A-List cast with Victor McLaglen as Hercules, Myrna Loy as Cleopatra, and Jean Harlow as Venus. However, all of the stars reportedly balked at the prospect being in a film with "sideshow exhibitions."
This 1932 film is clearly Browning's best film, vastly superior to the more famous "Dracula," which, after all, was basically a filmed stage play for the most part. It is not even close. You might screen this film for the first time because of its reputation, but you will watch it again because it is a pretty good film, especially given the time at which it was made.
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on 27 August 2009
I watched this film yesterday and I enjoyed thoroughly.

How often do we get to see the physically/mentally diverse in a film these days, let alone empowered and taking revenge over callous injustice! And we are supposed to be in the politically correct age.

Of course the people featured on this film are seen through the perspective of 1932, when deformity was considered circus material, not at all tolerated by society at large, and 'freaks' were confined to circuses and traveling fairs as exploitable attractions. But this film also shows that, even if not leading a dignified life by ordinary standards, the 'freaks' living in the circus were also able to earn a living and be part of an accepting community. They are portrayed as people with ordinary problems, relationships, and friendships.

A bit of a voyeuristic touch is noticeable as the man with no arms nor legs is shown lighting a cigarette (with a somewhat proud look in his eyes) or the lady with no arms drinks a glass of bubbly. This could also be viewed as simply showing how people different from us do the same things we do.

The horror chase at the end is quite scary, and despite this film taking the us/them perspective, between normal looking folks and 'freaks', and saying that 'freaks' have their own codes, in a conspiration theory science fiction, the movie's final message is that physical diversity is acceptable, and indeed preferable to beauty when accompanied by evil behaviour, which is punished harshly in the end, when the beautiful baddie is transformed in what she despises the most.

The best part of this movie is that at first the 'freaks' (a man with no limbs, a lady with no arms, a man without legs, three microcephalus ladies, an extremely thin man, the classic circus bearded lady, and others) seem disturbing, but by the end of the movie their diversity is not as noticeable, as in view of their character, their smile, and the way we see their lives as not very different from our own, we identify with them.

I don't think that in our age there is a much better acceptance of physical and mental diversity, and I consider this film as doing a better job at treating the subject than total invisibility in the media, which is pretty much the way in the 21st century.
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on 17 June 2001
This is a film filled with numerous contradictions. It at once makes an attempt to defy preconceived ideas about 'otherness', yet at the same time undermines these attempts and therefore serves to reinforce them. Brownings direction is magnificent. The viewer is both unsettled by the use of so-called 'real' freaks, yet also intrigued, which creates a complex relationship between viewer and subject. Ultimately, instead of us considering the distinctions between 'normal' people and 'freaks' to become blurred throughout the course of the film, they actually become more clearly defined, and in particular from the freaks' point of view. It becomes clear that they wish to preserve an identity of differentness and otherness and that is just what they do. They key scene for emphasising this fact is the wedding feast between Hans and Cleo. A communal cup is passed around the table accompanied by ritual chanting. But it is the freak community stamping their claim to a separateness and distictness from the rest of the circus folk. The chant goes "One of us. We accept her, we accept her. Gooble gobble, gooble gobble", firstly asserting their right to be different and to set themselves apart in their self-contained 'freak' community, and secondly emphasising their strangeness and otherness with the gibberish and nonsensical chant. All in all, this is an excellent film. The controversy surrounding the film's original release has made it all the more intriguing for the modern viewer who is attracted to the idea of controversy, however, it is likely that many such viewers will be disappointed. I myself was not.
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on 30 November 2008
Banned in the UK until 1963 'Freaks' is one of the most shocking films to come from the 1930's (along with the original Dracula).
'Freaks' is the horror story of a group of circus inhabitants, with an array of different handicap's (e.g little girls that look like ugle men & people devoid of limbs.) It was at that time a great controversy understandably, most people in the 1930's probably had never seen such people.
The story is mainly based around a dwarf man, Hans (who has the eternal appearnace of a little boy) who falls for an attractive, well-bodied woman called Cleopatra. She is a gold-digger & takes advantage of the affection Hans has for her by plotting with her actual partner, Hercules a way to get his money. When the 'freaks' find out about her unlawful intentions, she's really in for it.
Part of me didn't feel much sympathy for Hans, he has the love of Frieda (his fiance at the start of the film with the same condition to him).
I find it hard to believe someone with his condition (or anyone)with a great deal of money can truly believe a beautiful, able-bodied woman is truly attracted to him (don't get me wrong I know of hook-ups between dwarfs & average height people, but Hans doesn't seem to question her devotion.)
Hans turns his back on Frieda, who throughout the film stands by him, worships him & makes him feel like a man. She remains faithful & loyal even after Hans chooses to marry Cleopatra.
He turned his back on true love for lust & physical attraction which gives me little sympathy for him.
The acting is understandably amateur, but adequate enough that I wouldn't go as far to say that it is bad.
'Freaks' manages to be a scary, 'Revenge of The Nerds' type movie that well deserves the title of 'cult classic'.
In conclusion I would recommend this film to anyone interested in this era of cinema or classic horror films.
The underlying message of the film? Don't mess with family.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 April 2014
Tod Browning's Freaks is as infamous today as it was back in the 30s when it shook film watchers to the core. Of course time has diluted some of its impact, you can imagine that a modern day horror fan drooling over torture porn et al being completely bemused by the reputation afforded Freaks. Yet it still remains a unique and nightmarish piece of film making, the sort of picture that if someone like David Lynch had made it in the modern era it would be heralded as a masterpiece of daring and genius like artistry.

Browning pulls us the viewers into this bizarre carnival society of oddities who are genuinely portrayed by real people. Their codes and ethics are laid bare, but not in some sort of yearning for sympathy, but in a factual way of life. Browning toys with his audience, planting suggestive images of sexual dalliances and role reversals, then he completely pulls the rug from under us to deliver his flip-flop finale.

The messages aren't deep, but they need to be thought about. For even as the freaks of Browning's play terrifyingly pursue their quarry through the rain and mud, as the blood freezes and the macabre imagery strikes the senses, it would be a shame if themes such as love and loyalty be forgotten. 9/10
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on 19 August 2009
Ok, if you're looking for a techie film buff review which is going to tell you about the cinematography and refer to other directors and all that jazz, read no further! Personally I loved it. Some reviewers regard it as exploitative but I disagree, since the "freaks" are not presented in any kind of patronising way as far as I could see. On the contrary, the "freaks" are quite rounded characters, given the technological limitations of the era, not to mention the lost footage. It's also a very atmospheric film, and one which, in terms of getting its audience to face up to their prejudices regarding disability, is still highly relevant today. But that's not why I enjoyed it. It's simply a film which engages my sympathies and succeeds in bringing out the earthiness of the circus, as well as being, as far as I'm aware, quite unique, and every bit as uplifting as it is macabre.
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on 20 December 2000
It is hard to compare this film to other horror genre films, as the people in the film are essentially playing themselves. It creates the right mood of darkness and suceeds in getting the viewer to understand what life is like for those viewed by society (with all it's supposed PC-ness) as just as the title suggests - Freaks. It flinches from little and the final scenes - shot in pouring rain, mud and nightfall convey the impending fate of the 'non freak' (but villain of the piece) superbly. This film was banned for years before making it onto Channel 4 some years ago.
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on 30 November 2013
There used to be a theory in art college that many of the professors blandly bandied about like religious dogma. It was the theory of "aesthetics only." This theory maintained that it did not matter whether a painting was of a landscape, a penis, or non-representational. A work of art could only be judged by aesthetic criteria.

The biggest problem with that theory is that it rarely holds true. A good example of this would be in comparing the work of Diego Riveria to the work of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Riveria was clearly a better painter aesthetically. He had a far better sense of composition, and a keener sense of color than Kahlo. However, Riveria lacked Kahlo's obsessive vision, and it is her vision that remains far more memorably etched in our conscience.

Another example which blows the "aesthetics only" theory out of the water would be in comparing D.W. Griffith to his one-time assistant Tod Browning. There is no doubt that, aesthetically, Griffith was a far more innovative and fluid director. However, Griffith lacked two important qualities which Browning had in spades; obsessive vision and pronounced human empathy. It is the latter of these two vivid Browning qualities that renders Griffith a grossly inferior artist when compared to the inimitable Tod Browning.

Browning was consistently drawn to and connected with the social outcast, while Griffith espoused his racial superiority and reprehensibly tidied that up in his protruding "aesthetics" chest. That Griffith was ( and still is) celebrated, smacks of American and Hollywood hypocrisy and superficiality at its most blatant.

Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it confined to the film community. Conductor Rafael Kubelik was mercilessly attacked and driven out of Chicago by Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy because he programmed ethnic and contemporary music. How is the late Ms. Cassidy remembered? Chicago named a theater after her.

Celebrated New York Times Music critic Olin Downes publicly ridiculed Dimitri Mitropoulos for his not so secret sexual preference. The freak Dimitri left the New York Philharmonic and succumbed to a fatal heart attack shortly after.

Browning remains yet another outcast artist, who is critically compared in unfavorable standing next to the likes of Griffith and fellow "horror" director James Whale. Yet, Tod Browning defines the word auteur far more than these, or any director of his time, and he has had a far more impactful influence on the generation of auteur directors who followed him (including David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowksy, and Tim Burton [well, early Tim Burton]).

After the 1931 box office success of Browning's Dracula and Whale's Frankenstein, MGM second in command Irving Thalberg approached Browning and asked him to come up with something to outdo both of those films. Browning responded with his manifesto, Freaks.

From the beginning of Freaks` genesis, there were problems aplenty. Thalberg's fascistic boss, Louis B. Mayer, was vehemently opposed to it even at the conceptual stage, and his objections only intensified. During filming, many on the MGM lot found the sight of the freaks so disturbing that they sought to have the production stopped. Fortunately, Thalberg came to Browning's aid and saved filming from being sabotaged on numerous occasions.

Then there is Thalberg himself, who remains one of Hollywood's most interesting paradoxes. Unlike Mayer, Thalberg loved movies and knowing his bad heart would doom him to an early grave, he worked diligently on projects he believed in, securing his legacy, albeit anonymously since he always refused screen credit. The Marx Brothers were a pet project. The brothers really did create as much surreal havoc off-screen as they did on and many at MGM wanted them gone, but Thalberg took them under his wing amd lavished their productions with so much professionalism, craftsmanship and care that the Marx Brothers films following Thalberg's death are substantially weaker.

As much as Thalberg loved movies, he loved them for their entertainment value alone and he had no understanding of film as art. It was Thalberg, with Mayer, who butchered Stroheim's Greed. When Browning finished Freaks, Thalberg, who had previously defended Browning, did not hesitate to cut nearly a half hour of footage from the film (and, as was the norm at that time, burned the excised footage).

It was not even box office whiplash, since the film opened to huge crowds in San Diego, but rather it was critical and audience reactions that prompted Thalberg to hand Browning over to the wolves . While Thalberg did give Browning the green light to proceed with the inferior Mark of the Vampire (1935) three years later, Freaks, in effect, ended Browning's career. He would only be given two more films, one of which, The Devil Doll (1936) he did not even receive screen credit for. Browning's career came to a whimpering close in 1939. He died an obscure, alcoholic recluse in 1962.

Browning, the perennial outsider, could have cared less. He had run away from an affluent home at the age of 16 to join a carnival side show and the dancer he had fallen in love with. He began acting in his thirties, assisted Griffith, began making his own films and had been moving towards Freaks for years, stamping almost everything he touched with his own unique personality. Many of his films are lost, or exist only in truncated condition and very few of those have ever been released in any format whatsoever for the video market.

The Unholy Three (1925),The Blackbird (1926),The Road to Mandalay (1926) the unjustly neglected, compelling The Show (1927)--with its own parade of freak characters, and soon to be labeled freak star, John Gilbert--the masterful The Unknown(1927,the lost London after Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928)and Where East is East (1929) are all unmistakably the hand of Browning. Not coincidentally, all languish in obscurity. Browning himself continues to be dismissed by less insightful critics, who evaluate the man and his work by contemporary entertainment standards or even accuse the great empathetic artist of exploitation. Browning's standing still remains low. Neither he, nor any of his films have received a single honor by a major film recognition/preservation institution.

Despite Freaks strong American box office opening, it was soon yanked (after two weeks) and banned pretty much worldwide for the next fifty years. Freaks was much written about throughout the 1960s and 1970s. With the advent of the video market in the 1980s, the time was ripe for rediscovery.

Does Freaks live up to its reputation? That depends solely on perspective. That it is a masterful vision and labor of love from the most authentically unusual artist to emerge from the Hollywood system is of little doubt. If one approaches Freaks expecting it to be in line with the "classic horror" mold films of the 1930's, however,then one is apt to be disappointed. Despite the misguided marketing strategies of the studio, or Blockbuster styled category labeling, Freaks is not a "horror" film in the normal understanding of the word. Aptly, it is a horrifying film in the abnormal sense, for it is the horrifying, normal people who intend to murder for money. Freaks is an unsettling vision and that is the only description one can give to it, genres be damned.

That Browning used actual carnival freaks, as opposed to "real" actors, certainly killed what little chance the film had for box office potential. Myrna Loy and Jena Harlow were among the actresses MGM attempted to obtain for the lead. Not surprisingly, neither of these tinsel town types would touch it.

The most unsettling thing about Freaks is in its unflinching turning of the table. For Browning it is the beautiful ones who are the freaks and the freaks who are the beautiful ones. That the freaks are not professional actors is blatantly obvious from the outset, yet they ring far more authentic than the professionals in the film and, indeed many Hollywood actors of the period. The glamorous acting of countless actors in the thirties rings far more false, and is far less memorable. Of course, little has changed. The pinheads exude a unique substance and spiritual ethos that one could never gleam from Hollywood's fashion plate, which has consistently confused fashion with style.

As in Browning's Dracula, it is clear that the director's interest lies in developing the perennial outsider. The "normal" characters in Freaks seem under-developed, which may have been Browning's choice, or character development may have been lost in Thalberg's merciless excising of nearly a half hour of footage. The tacked on happy ending has been debated since its release. It does not work and comes off as a diluted afterthought.

Olga Baclanova plays Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who dwarf Hans, played by Henry Earles, falls in love with. We know her fate from the outset, which mutes the potential for much needed suspense. Cleopatra is merely using Hans for his wealth while she carries on a not so secretive affair with Henry Victor's Hercules. Frieda, Hans' pre-Cleopatra fiancée, is played by Harry's sister, Daisy Earles, and she sees through the scheming of Cleopatra and Hercules.

This is a very slow moving build up. Ironically, Browning, having been accused of exploiting the freaks by critics who simply don't have the guts to readily admit that they just don't want to see them, only shows the freaks in their natural, behind the scene, daily environment. Browning never resorts to showing the freaks on stage or in performance. Instead, he shows these physical mishaps in reality checks, doing everyday things we would do, such as smoking a cigarette.

Foolishly, Hans does not listen to Frieda's warnings and marries Cleopatra. The wedding banquet scene is still among the most discussed moments of Freaks. The freaks chant "Gooble, gobble. We accept her, we accept her. One of us." They lift their bowl of wine in acceptance of Cleopatra as a fellow freak and Cleopatra does a freak out. She douses them with the wine, calls them filthy freaks and, with Hercules, mocks her new husband.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning Hans. Hans and his community know it, and plan retaliation. The sequence is beautifully filmed by Browning. The culprits are exposed in the back of a wagon, deep in the night, during a thunderstorm. Browning's critics have accused him of demonizing the freaks here. Quite the contrary, Browning empowers his misfits and, in communal effort, they exact a terrifying revenge on an abusive, hostile and normal society who forever has branded them as freaks.

Theologian Hans Kung rightly has said that visionary John XXIII will never be canonized by the institution. Visionaries never are canonized by institutions or institutional types. Kung adds that this matters little since those who appreciate and understand vision have already canonized him.

The same could be said for Tod Browning. It matters little if the Academy Awards,the American Film Institute or by-the-numbers critics pay him due or not. The visionaries canonized him a long time ago.

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