“All that is necessary now, on top of our other trials and tribulations, is to start frightening our child patrons to the point of hysteria.”
Those are the December 1931 words of M.A. Lightman, president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners, after the release of Dracula and Frankenstein, warning of the possible consequences if Hollywood were to flood the filmgoing public with “horror” pictures.
Freaks is a film of mythological stature; it’s been described as standing alone in a subgenre of one. By the time I saw the film in a midnight movie series at Indiana University’s Student Center in the early 1980s, I was about 18 or 19 years old. I’d heard about Freaks all my life from my film-buff father, and I’d read every reference to it that I could get my hands on (yes, hands on, because this was before the ubiquity of the internet1). My father drove down from Noblesville that night to go with me to the movie, as he did when they showed one of his most favorite monster movies. He never spent the night; instead he’d drive the 90 minutes back to Noblesville at about 2:30 a.m., after we’d thoroughly dissected our film experience at my favorite all-night coffeehouse. (I don’t think it exists anymore or else I’d give it a shout-out.)
Although I loved the fact that we saw the films together, our discussions and our late-night coffee drinking, at the time, I’m not sure I appreciated my father’s efforts as much as I should have — that those now-treasured memories of mine caused him a long couple of days. Of course, I knew he’d already worked all day, gone home to have dinner with “mom and the boys” (my younger brothers), stayed awake past his normal bedtime to drive to Bloomington, watched the film and stayed for coffee, then drove back to Noblesville to go back to work after just a few hours of sleep. I knew all that, but … I didn’t really. Such is the foolish perspective of youth toward parenting.
But, back to Freaks. You should know that I chose to write this review without rewatching the film. I made that choice to honor my father’s efforts back in the day and to honor the experience he had that night when he came to Bloomington to watch it with me: He was 50 years old and he hadn’t seen the film since he was a child. When we walked out of the Student Union theatre, he was so happy. He said, “My God, Aly, it was exactly as I remember it!” (My childhood nickname was Aly, but I am not to be confused with my brilliant daughter, Aly Caviness!) And so, my written review is in honor of my father’s childhood memory of the film. (After writing this piece, I watched the DVD and, with tears streaming down my 55-year-old face, said aloud, “My God, Dad, it was exactly as I remember it!”)
Before you read on about the film itself, I ask you to consider this film as I’ve always seen it — a cautionary tale of the horror of human nature. I believe it should be shown to children not to drive them to point of hysteria, as Lightman worried, but rather to teach them that any kind of bullying and mistreatment of others is wrong and that the “other” is not to be feared or reviled. In this ultimate mother of all outsiders-get-revenge movies that have come after it (in any genre of film), I, like the film’s creator, never saw the freaks as the monsters.
Freaks is a 1932 American horror film produced and directed by Tod Browning in Hollywood’s pre-Code era (1929-34), prior to the establishment of Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. His original version of the film ran 90 minutes, but it was considered too shocking by the powers that be, so several scenes were cut and a (now stereotypical) happy Hollywood ending added, resulting in a runtime of 64 minutes. I don’t believe the original version exists any longer, although the Criterion DVD release in 2015 attempts to honor some of the lost footage with a lot of extras.
Freaks began principal photography in October 1931 and was completed in December. After disastrous test screenings in January 1932 — after which one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage — the studio made the cuts, added a new prologue featuring a carnival barker, and added a new ending featuring the reconciliation of two tiny lovers. The film premiered at the Fox Criterion in Los Angeles on February 20, 1932.
The film is based on elements from Tod Robbins’s short story “Spurs” and Browning’s own experiences on the carnival circuit. (Here’s another link about Olga Baclanova that contains wonderful information about the actress, who is featured in Freaks, and the film itself. At age 16, Browning ran away from his well-to-do family to become a performer and traveled extensively with sideshows, carnivals and circuses. He worked as a contortionist, as a talker for the Wild Man of Borneo, performed a live burial act in which he was billed as The Living Corpse, and performed as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus.) Browning’s film rests on his belief that “freaks” are normal in every respect except the physical. In the film, the freaks are inherently trusting and honorable people while the real monsters are two normal members of the circus.
Victor McLaglen was considered for the role of Hercules while Myrna Loy was initially slated to star as Cleopatra and Jean Harlow proposed as Venus. Ultimately, the (uncredited) producer Irving Thalberg decided not to cast any major stars in the picture; he cast Henry Victor (Hercules), Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Baclanova (Cleopatra) and Rosco Ates (Roscoe) as the non-freaks leads.
The eponymous characters were played by real carnival sideshow performers. Among them were dwarf siblings Harry and Daisy Earles, Johnny Eck (the legless man) and conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton. Among the people referred to in the film as “pin-heads” were microcephalics Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow (Zip and Pip) and Simon Metz (aka Schlitzie; he was a male who in the film wore a dress).
Microcephaly is a neurodevelopmental disorder that manifests with an unusually small brain and skull, developmental delays in speech and movement, difficulties with coordination and balance, dwarfism or short stature, facial distortions, hyperactivity, intellectual disabilities, and seizures.
Also featured in the film were Josephine Joseph (the intersex, with her left-right divided gender), the completely limbless Prince Randian (mis-credited as Rardion), Elizabeth Green (the Stork Woman), Frances O’Connor (the armless wonder), and Koo-Koo (who had Virchow-Seckel syndrome, or bird-headed dwarfism, and is most remembered for the scene in which she dances on the table).
The notorious history of Freaks is well-documented. Browning made his directorial reputation working with Lon Chaney in what is now called “disability cinema.” (Chaney bound back his legs to play a double-amputee mobster in The Penalty  and became adept with his feet to play an armless knife-thrower in The Unknown .) Browning had great success with Universal’s Dracula (1931) and MGM wanted him to direct a Dracula-like horror hit, so they gave Browning a lot of leeway for MGM’s first horror film.
Browning wanted to make a film with a circus sideshow cast with actual human “oddities.” MGM’s production supervisor Thalberg, who championed Browning’s work at Universal, believed Browning could express the freaks’ humanity, but that kind of support was rare within the studio system. Loy reportedly wept and begged Thalberg not to cast her in the film, studio head Louis B. Mayer tried to shut down production upon seeing Browning’s sideshow discoveries, and other stars and staff at MGM demanded arrangements for separate dining quarters away from the studio cafeteria to keep the film’s “freakier” cast members from upsetting their meals!
Browning’s Attempts to Normalize the ‘Freaks’
Between segments of the main narrative, Browning included a variety of normalizing segments meant to be slice-of-life vignettes into the lives of sideshow performers, including:
- The Bearded Lady, who loves the Human Skeleton, giving birth to their daughter. The news is spread among the freak friends by the Stork Woman.
- Violet, a conjoined twin whose sister, Daisy, is married to circus clown Roscoe, becomes engaged to the circus’s owner. The sisters experience each other’s physical sensations: Daisy reacts with romantic arousal when Violet is kissed by her fiancé, and a closed-eyed Violet knows when Daisy’s shoulder has been pinched. Violet often clashes with Roscoe, but they set aside their dislike for each other when one of the circus members’ lives is in danger.
- Frances O’Connor, the armless wonder, demonstrates how she performs everyday activities using feet instead of arms.
REALLY Brief Plot of Freaks
Hans is a well-mannered and honorable little person (referred to as a midget or dwarf at the time of the film’s production) who works in the sideshow of a traveling circus. He is engaged to another little-person performer, Frieda, but is besotted with the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra. Once Cleopatra discovers Hans is a wealthy man with a large inheritance, she connives with her lover, circus strongman Hercules, to assist her in seducing Hans into marriage, with the goal to murder Hans and inherit his wealth.
She succeeds in her marriage plot, but her revulsion with Hans and the other sideshow freaks causes her to lose her composure during the wedding banquet, drunkenly rebuking them as “dirty, slimy freaks!” Cleopatra and Hercules’ plan to poison Hans is eventually uncovered, and — on a dark and stormy night — the freaks take their revenge.
The Horror Plays Out on Film
The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing in customers to visit the sideshow. A woman views a box’s hidden occupant. The woman screams. The barker tells her that the horror in the box once was a beautiful and talented trapeze artist.
The tale is then told of how, after learning of Hans’ large inheritance, Cleopatra plots to seduce, marry, kill him and thus inherit his wealth. To paraphrase a famous movie line, this is the stuff that horror is made of. The first two stages of Cleopatra and Hercules’ evil plan are accomplished with few obstacles; after all, what “deficient” (i.e., inferior) human being would not succumb to the positive attentions of a “normal”(i.e., superior) human being? Think about your own experiences in junior high and high school for just one second, as well as all the movies, books and TV shows that play out that particular scenario of yearning for acceptance.
Back to the film. The plot thickens: At their wedding reception, Cleopatra begins poisoning Hans’ wine. Oblivious to her machinations, the other freaks announce that they accept Cleopatra in spite of her being a “normal.” To them, she is the outsider. They initiate her into their company with a ceremony in which they pass a loving cup around the table as they chant joyously (and, yes, a little creepily), “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble.”
The initiation ceremony frightens the drunken Cleopatra, and she accidentally reveals that she really loves Hercules. Revealing that she has no affection for Hans is bad enough; no one, not even inferior “deficients” want to be made fools of by superior “normals.” But then Cleopatra mocks the freaks and, with disgust, tosses the wine in their faces. Then, the final insult: She drives them away, as if they are animals, subhuman.
Now humiliated, Hans realizes he has been played for a fool. After she has sobered up and realized she may have ruined her get-rich scheme, Cleopatra attempts to apologize, but he rejects her. But of course, Hans falls ill from the poison, allowing her diabolical intent to resume. Cleopatra then begins to poison his medication. But Hans is no dummy, and he’s nobody’s fool now. While bedridden, Hans pretends to apologize to Cleopatra and also pretends to take the poisoned medicine. Secretly, he is plotting with the other freaks to take his revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules.
I don’t want to give away all the details; suffice to say Hercules finds out that the freaks know about Cleopatra’s poisonous plot. Then comes the moment in the film that is its most horror-like scene: the dark and stormy scene, the film’s climax. We see the freaks coming through the storm. They wield guns, knives and other sharp-edged weapons, and they advance upon Hercules and Cleopatra. Through the rain and darkness and the lightning flashes, we see the freaks, in all their “deformed” glory, crawling and pulling themselves along through the mud, and we hear their menacing moaning mingle with the sounds of the raging storm. They attack the evil Hercules and Cleopatra.
Hercules is never seen again.3 As for Cleopatra, she has truly become “one of us” — a grotesque and squawking human duck, with the flesh of her hands melted and deformed to look like duck feet, her legs cut off, and what is left of her torso permanently tarred and feathered. She is reason the woman in the opening scene screams. The End, right? Lesson learned. Don’t mistreat people just because they appear to be different, weaker or “less than” you think you are.
Now, as I mentioned, MGM opted to insert a happy ending into the final released version. Hans is living a millionaire’s life in a lovely mansion. Venus and Phroso visit him, bringing Frieda (remember, Hans was engaged to her before the whole Cleopatra debacle). Ashamed, Hans refuses to see them, but they force their way past his servant. Frieda assures Hans she knows he tried to stop the others from exacting revenge. She comforts Hans as he starts to cry and we know: they’ll live happily ever after.
Bullshit! I like the original ending so much better! The purist in me hates that particular scene in which Frieda presumes to know Hans’s purer intent because there was no hint before this Hollywood moment of him trying to stop anything. Hans definitely seethed with hurt and anger and wanted revenge. I prefer the initial ending because it has honestly and grit. It does its job. It teaches us what Browning learned firsthand as he worked side by side with carnival sideshow people: No human physical “deficiency” equates with inferiority and no physical deformity equates with monster. The real monsters are regular “normal” people who think they are superior to others. The End.
For Lazy Readers (seriously, just Google it yourself) — Cultural Influence
The film, especially the famous chant, “We accept her, one of us,” is referenced in many works, too many to mention here, including:
- The Ramones’ song “Pinhead” (inspired by a screening of the film)
- Norwegian industrial metal band Gothminister, which samples dialogue in its song “Freaks.”
- Two parodies on The Simpsons, in both the series’ first and 25th seasons, as well as in a South Park episode .
- The chant, along with a corresponding clip, is used in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and is also referenced in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
- WWE wrestling staple The Oddities’ entrance video features film clips.
- The film is referenced in the Zippy the Pinhead comic.
- A documentary / biopic about Schlitzie has been in production since 2016.
- The fourth season of television series American Horror Story, subtitled Freak Show, draws inspiration from the film.
Despite the cuts and changes, Freaks was still negatively received by audiences, recording a loss of $164,000. It became the only MGM film ever pulled from release before completing its planned domestic engagements. It was banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years. It remains an object of extreme controversy.
Browning had trouble finding work afterward and Freaks effectively ended his career. A number of contemporary reviews were highly critical of the film, and some also expressed outrage and revulsion:
Harrison’s Reports wrote that “Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.”
In The Kansas City Star, John C. Moffitt wrote, “There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it.”
The Hollywood Reporter called it an “outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience.”
Variety also published a negative review, writing that the film was “sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared, but Metro heads failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story is still important. Here the story is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for too fantastic a romance.” The review went on to state that the story “does not thrill and at the same time does not please, since it is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget. And only in such a case will the story appeal.”
Well, those reviewers were clearly morons.
Not all reviews at the time were as harsh.
The New York Times called it “excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others” as well as “a picture not to be easily forgotten.”
The New York Herald Tribune wrote that it was “obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work,” but that “in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching.”
John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote a positive review, calling it “a little gem” that “stands in a class by itself, and probably won’t be forgotten in a hurry by those who see it.” He found its “perfectly plausible story” a key to the effectiveness of its horror, writing that “It’s a chilling notion to imagine these weird beings, with their own lives and vanities and passions, all allied in a bitter enmity against us.” Addressing the controversial subject matter, Mosher stated: “if the poor things themselves can be displayed in the basement of Madison Square Garden, pictures of them might as well be shown in the Rialto. They may hereafter even be regarded in the flesh with a new dread bordering on respect.”
Well, I guess those reviewers were slightly less moronic.
In 1947, MGM sold the rights to the film to Dwain Esper for $50,000. A veteran of World War I, Esper worked as a building contractor before going into the film business in the mid-1920s. He produced and directed inexpensive pictures with eye-catching titles like Sex Maniac, Marihuana and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. He included gratuitous nudity and violence that led some to label him the “father of modern exploitation.” Esper’s wife, Hildagarde Stadie, wrote many of the scripts for his films. Together, they employed extravagant promotional techniques that included exhibiting the mummified body of notorious Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy, before it was acquired by Dan Sonney, who was a director, producer, and distributor of exploitation films.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered as a counterculture cult film and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several theaters in the United States (shout-out to IU’s Midnight Movie series!). In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, which preserves “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” films. The freaks’ climactic revenge scene was ranked 15th on Bravo TV’s list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. On film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Freaks holds a 94% “fresh” rating based on 53 reviews, the consensus of which states that “Time has been kind to this horror legend: Freaks manages to frighten, shock, and even touch viewers in ways that contemporary viewers missed.”
Personally (she said with a rather superior sniff), I think most viewers today will also miss the moral of this classic “horror” film.
1 I did a Google search for bullied outsiders get revenge, which yielded about 1,690,000 results in 0.44 seconds, with sites like https://www.cinemadailies.com/the-best-movies-about-bullying/ and https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/27/books/bullying-becomes-hot-and-profitable-topic-for-publishers.html and oodles of websites that cite popular “one of us” chants and / or parodies of Freaks in I, Robot, The Big Bang Theory, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons, South Park, and the like.
Wallace Ford as Phroso; Leila Hyams as Venus; Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra; Rosco Ates as Roscoe; Henry Victor as Hercules; Harry Earles as Hans; Daisy Earles as Frieda; Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini; Daisy and Violet Hilton as the Siamese twins; Schlitzie as himself; Josephine Joseph as Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck as Half Boy; Frances O’Connor as Armless girl; Peter Robinson as Human skeleton; Olga Roderick as Bearded Lady; Koo Koo as herself; Prince Randian as The Living Torso; Martha Morris as Angeleno’s armless wife; Elvira Snow as Pinhead Pip; Jenny Lee Snow as Pinhead Zip; Elizabeth Green as Stork Woman/Bird Girl; Delmo Fritz as Sword Swallower; Angelo Rossitto as Angeleno; Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh as the Rollo Brothers.
3 The film’s original version included a longer sequence of the freaks attacking Cleopatra, as well as a gruesome sequence showing Hercules being castrated (the audience later sees Hercules singing in falsetto), a number of comedy sequences and most of the film’s original epilogue.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Hellroller — Richard Propes
Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes
Unfriended — Austin Lugar
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Beyond — Nick Rogers
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey