FREAKS (1932) movie review

Freaks (1932) d. Browning, Tod (USA)

Browning followed up his success with 1931's Dracula with this unique film focused on the microcosm of “oddity” circus performers under the traveling big top, based on Tod Robbins' short story "Spurs." The simple plot revolves around the beautiful, venomous trapeze artist Olga Baclanova toying with the affections of midget Harry Earles for his money while she dallies behind his back with resident strong man Henry Victor; but of equal interest is a peek into the backstage life of these extraordinary human permutations.

While one is certainly astonished and shocked by these unusual versions of mankind, Browning’s ability to allow their humanity show is the real magic performed here. (A throwaway scene in which the armless, legless Prince Randian lights a cigarette is a jaw-dropping gem.) Indeed, with the exception of a friendly clown Wallace Ford and his sweetheart Leila Hyams, the “normal” characters are far more revolting and abhorrent, with our sympathies clearly going to the “monsters.”

When the freaks realize Baclanova is poisoning Earles, they plot their revenge and the haunting, nightmarish shots of them crawling through the mud are unforgettable, as is the villainess’ final horrific fate. All this turned out to be a bit much for the viewers of 1932, and the film was pulled from release for many years.

Much was made of Browning’s decision to use real-life circus freaks (an artistic choice that ostensibly ended his thriving career), but in watching the film it is not distaste of exploitation that one feels, but wonder at the resilience and uniqueness of the human race, and how true horrors are often wrapped in pleasing packages.

Browning with his cast


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