- 1 hr 2 min
In the pre-Code era of cinema, a film titled Freaks was highly controversial, its content too shocking for audiences of that time. Director Tod Browning was derided for his portrayal of circus performers, and his film was banned for many years. However, in hindsight, we can see how this film shattered society's norms and dared to explore the beauty within anomalies, disabilities, and differences.
Freaks follows a forbidden romance between trapeze artist Cleopatra (played by Olga Baclanova) and strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Cleopatra is repulsed by the circus "freaks" and their presence among the "normal" performers. She mocks them, degrades them and takes advantage of their vulnerabilities. But the freaks, gifted with a keen sense of loyalty and solidarity, sense danger from Cleopatra, and ultimately decide to take matters into their own hands.
The titular "freaks" are portrayed as people with unique talents, charm and personalities. They are the stars of the circus, and they are ridiculed and rejected by mainstream society. The characters include Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who behave as one entity; Johnny Eck, a man born without legs who performed stunts on his hands; Schlitzie, a microcephalic "pinhead" with a heart of gold; and Prince Randian, the "living torso" who managed his body through his mouth and tongue.
Freaks is a movie that defies classification: it is not a horror film, though it may contain horrifying elements. It's not a drama, though there is plenty of emotional depth to the characters. Freaks is a story of love and loyalty, a modern-day fable that teaches us that what society might consider a liability can also be a source of strength and empowerment.
As the film progresses, Cleopatra's disdain and scorn for the "freaks" become increasingly explicit. She courts Hercules, using him as a means to an end while simultaneously taking interest in the circus clown, who is another performer she ridicules. The freaks, to her, are beneath her, useful only as a means to her own entertainment and financial gain. The scene in which she sings a song with lyrics intended to belittle the deformed, misshapen and disabled people of the circus is both chilling and heartbreaking.
When the "freaks" become aware of the danger posed by Cleopatra and Hercules, they unite to protect one of their own. Their fall from grace is swift, but their retaliation is visceral and unforgiving. The final sequence, which takes place during a torrential downpour in the circus tent, is one of the most shocking and unforgettable scenes in cinema history.
Freaks is a landmark film in the history of cinema, an important example of how movies have always been a reflection of society's fears, prejudices and beliefs. It's a film we can look back on with contemporary eyes and see how, despite its flaws, it dared to showcase the beauty and potential of characters and performers that society wanted to hide away. The film is a powerful reminder that the people we consider "abnormal" or "different" are often the ones who possess the greatest qualities of courage, kindness, and love. Freaks is a film that remains as relevant today as it was when it first screened almost a century ago.
Freaks is a 1932 drama with a runtime of 1 hour and 2 minutes. It has received mostly positive reviews from critics and viewers, who have given it an IMDb score of 7.8 and a MetaScore of 80.