The horror of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks is not simply that it showcases “freaks.” It kicks off with a long, gloriously pious text prologue soliciting the audience’s sympathy for the malformed, the mutilated, and so forth. (It was assumed, of course, that the film’s audience was composed of “normals.”) Then, for a good long while, every scene seems to make the same point: that the differently bodied are no different from “normal people” in emotion, in their need to belong, and in their sexual drives. The “normal” audience is thus conditioned to see the “freaks” merely as “normal” people in unusual packages. So we shouldn’t be so surprised, perhaps, when the “freaks” end up acting, indeed, much like the violent, vindictive, vengeful “normals” who have forced their hands.
Set behind the scenes of a circus sideshow, Freaks gives us what Stephen King pegged as an E.C. Comics horror story twenty years early. The midget Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with able-bodied trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She strings him along, getting jewelry and “loans” out of him, until she learns he’s sitting on a fat inheritance. Then Cleopatra conspires with her real love, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans and gradually poison him to death. Hans’ fellow outcasts — who had earlier grievously offended Cleopatra with their wedding-night chant “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us” — band together for ghastly revenge.
The beginning of that climactic sequence boasts a genuinely badass moment Quentin Tarantino would be proud to have filmed: dwarf Jerry Austin snapping open his switchblade and polishing it, followed by “half-boy” Johnny Eck taking out a gun and polishing it, while dwarf Angelo Rossitto plays his flute, unperturbed. Freaks is essentially a melodrama (based glancingly on Tod Robbins’ rather corny short story “Spurs”) that rolls inexorably towards a uniquely powerful and frightening denouement. It’s not that the “freaks” confirm our suspicions about them as inhuman; it’s that they, after spending much of the running time seeming quite amiable, fulfill their potential towards a darker kind of humanity. In true noir fashion, they prove as rotten as almost anyone else onscreen.
After the movie died in previews, a nervous MGM hacked out roughly half an hour, reportedly including a scene in which we see exactly what the enraged performers do to Hercules (castration, rumor has always had it). In the existing film, we never find out what happens to him, which kind of makes it worse, since our imaginations fill in the grotesque details. Part of the horror, for me, was seeing one of the “pinhead” women — previously never seen without gleeful smiles — crawl through the mud after Hercules, her face frozen and numb. The “freaks” are not shown to enjoy their revenge, exactly; it’s just something that must be done. The “straight” world has stomped on their kind once too often. At that point, the movie’s putative heroes, good-hearted “normals” played by Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, have been soundly forgotten; they turn up at the very end in a happy coda that feels pasted on. We know the true final shot should be of Cleopatra in her new role in the circus.
Tod Browning, who’d directed a few Lon Chaney vehicles as well as Lugosi’s Dracula, more or less killed his career with this film; he would helm only four more before spending twenty years inactive until his death in 1962. In truth, Browning’s choice of material and comfort with the unusual were always more interesting than his generally stiff direction; someone like James Whale might have found bizarre outsider wit in the story. But where it counts, in that apocalyptic finale and the revelation of Cleopatra’s fate, Browning locked in some of horror cinema’s most indelible images. Decades later, of course, Freaks would find a younger, more appreciative audience on video and midnight-movie showings, influencing filmmakers as well as the Ramones (who misquoted the freak-chant as “gabba gabba” on their 1977 song “Pinhead”). By then, it wasn’t that Americans accepted freaks but that Americans accepted themselves as one of them.