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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Freaks (1932) review


Harry Earles (Hans), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Henry Victor (Hercules), Angelo Rossitto (Angeleno), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Daisy & Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins), Schlitze (Himself), Jospehine Joseph (Half man/Half Woman), Johnny Eck (Half Boy), Frances O'Conner (Armless Girl), Peter Robinson (Human Skeleton), Olga Roderick (Bearded Lady), Prince Randian (The Human Torso)

Directed by Tod Browning

The Short Version: Tod Browning's Piece de Resistance of sideshow shockers is just as poignant and sadistic today as it was when it stirred the ire of hundreds of viewers in 1932. A classic catalog of cruelty, perversion and retribution, it's a startling and unsettling vision of humanity and the monsters we become, both human and freaks.

A cruel trapeze artist conspires with the carnival strongman to murder a lovelorn dwarf and steal away his riches. The freaks of the traveling sideshow learn of this plan and plot a scheme of their own that reaps violent consequences against those that would do them harm.

This macabre cinema masterpiece based on the short story 'Spurs' gradually, and finally garnered a good deal of critical acceptance after decades of being banished to the obscure reaches of dank, dark studio vaults. Tod (DRACULA) Browning was well known for his silent pictures, but was said to have never been comfortable shooting talkies. No doubt Browning's disdain for sound filming was the least of his problems before, during and after FREAKS was finished.

Some of the actors originally slotted for the film turned it down seeing it as being in bad taste, or offensive. With its raw power that permeates even in this day and age, seeing the film during its original release must have been a major shock to the public considering the plethora of real life freaks featured therein. The way the cinema hucksters publicized the movie mirrored the carnival barkers who peddled the wares of these walking, talking and quite normal anamolies who had feelings and integrity that far surpassed many of the individuals who paid to gawk at them.

When the movie became a quick spreading wildfire of controversy, MGM pulled the picture (despite making lots of money in some territories) and shelved it. FREAKS also proved the death knell for Browning's career and left a bad taste in a lot of peoples mouths which included some of the performers in the film itself. Heavily censored, the film lost close to 30 minutes of its running time from nervous exhibitors. Studio interference removed numerous bits of scenes that accentuated the human aspects of the freaks and magnified the more monstrous components of the "normal" people. Other bits removed were sexually provocative dialog exchanges that were a bit strong even for the time the picture was made.

Also, a portion of the original ending (set during a massive torrent of rain, thunder and lightning) was gutted featuring a high pitched Hercules after having been castrated by the angry mob of freaks as well as the sight of a tree collapsing onto Cleopatra crushing her legs prompting the vengeance seeking oddities to descend upon her. Reportedly, the only time the full end sequence was ever shown was during the films premiere in 1932. The last scene where Hans and Frieda get back together was tacked on to end things on a more upbeat note after the shocker sequence that precedes it that features the comeuppance of the conniving Cleopatra, now the human duck, her face disfigured and her legs chopped off.

The indignities continued when the film was later acquired for distribution by Dwain Esper who carted the picture around the country in true carnival style profiting on the exploitation of the participants. While some of the performers eventually hated having appeared, some of them had no regrets from taking part in the venture considering it led to more work in the industry. Johnny Eck was one of the latter, although in later years, became the victim of rampant crime and lived his remaining years as a veritable hermit within his own home.

Some of the attributes of these fascinating individuals are simply amazing and boggle the mind as to the casual way in which they perform basic everyday activities. One of the most impressive instances of overcoming an impediment concerns Prince Randian, the "Human Torso", minus his arms and legs, lighting a cigarette. What's not shown in the movie is Randian actually ROLLING the cigarette prior to striking a match to it. Astonishingly, Randian was married and had "normal" children.

Angelo Rossitto will be known to most as one half of the 'Master Blaster' from MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

Out of the entire movie, the most notorious sequence aside from the aforementioned grueling ending is the baroque and lurid 'The Wedding Feast'. It's here where all the freaks gather to dine after the wedding ceremony between Cleopatra and Hans. Both Cleo and Hercules become drunk and gleefully hit Hans in the face with one insult after another. The other freaks engage in merriment oblivious to what's really going on. Daisy, the one who truly loves Hans, is privy to the malicious jubilance of the two conspirators. Once the freaks sing and dance to make Cleopatra "One of us", the maudlin murderess becomes disenchanted and loudly humiliates the freaks culminating in throwing alcohol in their faces followed by more degradation. The synchronized chant of "gooble gobble" and "make her one of us", from the freaks has a horrific prognostication about it that takes a frighteningly gruesome form by the end of the film.

The Hilton sisters were actually married and ended up in Charlotte, NC where they lived out their days

The notoriety brought upon in the wake of FREAKS, inspired several other movies that utilized real freaks as a plot device, or exploitation value. The British horror opus, THE FREAKMAKER (1974) is a pseudo remake of Browning's milestone of cinema grotesque. 1977's THE SENTINEL featured an ending populated by real life freaks. This latter films sequence is probably most offensive of all since its freaks are depicted as demons from hell. One film, though, was a blatant remake of FREAKS and arguably one of the worst movies ever made. Entitled SHE FREAK (1967), Byrone Mabe's movie lazily and shoddily attempts to capture the style and gratuitousness of the much earlier freak film and fails horribly. The sleazy final shot is about the only morbidly interesting scene in the films entirety.

I first became aware of Browning's picture in the third grade back in 1983. On this particular day, a friend of mine brought with him a big 250 page book entitled 'Classics of the Horror Film'. I had a nice stack of a dozen issues of 'Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine'. Never before had I seen such a book on monster movies what with so many pages of oldeworld horror and Universal terror pictures. One of the films within was FREAKS. I was instantly fascinated with the images from the film and had to see it. Not long after, I would see more of it in 'Famous Monsters'. We ultimately traded--my twelve magazines for his large size book. Some time later I came to regret trading my much loved magazines, but eventually got them and many more back again years later.

Carnival/Circus horror and mystery carried on, though, minus sideshow distractions with such films as Edmond Goulding's classic noir NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), Harmon Jones's campy GORILLA AT LARGE (1954), Sidney Hayers gruesome CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960), Jim O'Connelly's schlocky BERSERK (1967), Hammer's sexy and sadistic VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971), Christopher Speeth's ghoulish MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (1973) and Tobe Hooper's carni-gore THE FUNHOUSE (1981) are just some examples.

An incredible movie that still sparks shock and awe some 80 years after its original release, FREAKS (1932) is must see entertainment that documents a time that has all but vanished with the passage of the ages. Possessing several sequences that will strike either immersion or indifference towards what you see up on screen, Browning's movie finally received a grand DVD special edition from Warner Brothers in 2004 containing a documentary longer than the feature itself among other notable extras. This highly recommended and notorious production is the ultimate sideshow attraction of the cinema of the grotesque.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD


Glenn, kenixfan said...

Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson? That's a good one. Not sure if I would have traded my Famous Monsters mags for it.

I am glad you mentioned The Sentinel as that film is -- along with The Manitou -- one of the best/worst films of the 1970s.

I think the ending of The Sentinel is clearly in bad taste since the makers were using "freaks" to save money on make-up where Browning was trying to tell a story about those who are different.

Angelo Rossito was also in hundreds of films including Al Adamson's wonderfully awful Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, I think.

Carl Manes said...

Fantastic write-up for one of my most recent favorites V, I only discovered FREAKS within the last year, but I was immediately blown away by it. It is superior to DRACULA in nearly every way imaginable, and it is so heartfelt and tragic it constantly distinguishes itself outside of the Horror genre. I can't remember, the WB version on DVD< did it re-integrate the cut footage, or is it only available through the doc?

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review Brian of a challenging and difficult film. This was banned for the best part of 40 years in the UK, which I believe is a record. The rain soaked and mud slicked finale is horrific and unforgettable. It's a particularly troublesome film from a moral standpoint - arguably an exploitation film about exploitation. It's not a film I visit very often. The last time I saw it was with an audience at an art cinema could have heard a pin drop!

venoms5 said...

@ Glenn: I later got the mags back and ultimately about 50 issues shy of a complete set if even that. I got THE MANITOU reviewed elsewhere. Great bad movie that one. Rossitto was also the newsstand seller in THE DARK (1979) and I think he's in the carnival segment of the gruesome anthology FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).

@ Carl: The cut footage is presumed lost. It's just detailed through voiceover in the extras. The alternate endings are just variations of what's there now. One ends after the fate of Baclanova is revealed, another is a trimmed version of the Hans/Daisy reunion and the other is the one already on the movie.

@ Shaun: I think they mention it in the documentary on the dvd that it was a record for length of time a film was banned in the UK. The last time I watched it was Halloween with the (now) ex. It's power to shock still holds up even if everything else is obviously dated. Watching it with the English subtitles on is even more scathing as some of the derogatory dialog is sometimes garbled.

Carl Manes said...

Thats right, now I remember. I can only imagine what the fully intact version would have been like, when the Freaks are already the more human characters in the film without them. One of my favorite reviews so far, V!

Samuel Wilson said...

Venom: I've just read "Spurs," which has been included in the James Ellroy-Otto Penzler anthology Best American Noir of the Twentieth Century. It's very different and nowhere near as horrific as Freaks, ending with midget and equestrienne still married but under terms highly favorable to the midget and having to do with both the spurs of the title and the intervention of a loyal but vicious pet dog. Browning's film is one of the few to really creep out my vampire-fan friend Wendigo, and he doesn't get creeped out easily.

venoms5 said...

@ Carl: It would be great to be able to see the complete ending, but it doesn't appear likely.

@ Sam: David Skal mentions on the documentary that the 'Spurs' story had the freaks as more dark and less sympathetic than they are featured in the movie. I'd say the film is one of a few of that vintage that will likely possess the power to shock for decades to come.

dfordoom said...

Nightmare Alley could have been every bit as shocking, if the studio had had the guts to stick the ending of the novel. Still a great movie though.

venoms5 said...

I've not read the book, D. Good movie as you said.

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