Weekly Movie Recommendation: Freaks

October’s theme is Horror!

For my first film recommendation, I wanted to do a classic horror film that most people either haven’t seen or heard of, so let me recommend Freaks.

Freaks is about a trapeze artist who agrees to marry the leader of some side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover a sinister secret about her. Freaks released in 1932 and was directed by Tod Browning, of Dracula (1931) fame. 

During the filming of Tod Browning’s, The Unholy Three, one of the film’s actors, Harry Earles, a dwarf, proposed the idea of using Tod Robbins’ story, “Spurs,” as a film to Browning, and he loved it. MGM bought the rights at Browning’s request. 

The film can be seen through many lenses, as either a film about class conflict or an argument against eugenics, which was more popular than you’d think at the time.

In the early twentieth century, families would gather from all over America and would be judged for which one had the better genetics. Contests like the ‘Better Babies Contest’ and the ‘Fitter Families Contests’ pitted people against each other to see who had the better hair, nicer face, fairer skin color, and just genes in general. Basically, it was promoting a hateful ideology and movement toward American families.

The most notable aspect of the film is that Browning made the controversial yet necessary decision to cast actual side-show performers as characters in the film. During filming, MGM segregated the film’s cast and crew to separate cafeterias so that “people could get to eat in the commissary without throwing up.”

MGM held test screenings, and they went terribly. Halfway through the preview, many people ran out. To be clear, they didn’t just walk out, they ran out. One woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming that the film caused her to suffer a miscarriage. 

Due to the overwhelming negative response, MGM cut the film down significantly. From ninety-minutes to just over an hour. Upon release, the film had even more controversy. The British censors banned it in the United Kingdom, and it remained that way until 1963, where it was passed with an X rating. Subsequently, due to the film’s many controversies, it was a failure at the box office and ruined Browning’s career.

Reviews for the film were not the prettiest, here are a few excerpts: 

“Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.”  

“outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains, and the stomachs of an audience. 

“To put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable.”

It did receive some favorable reviews: 

“excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others” 

“a picture not easily forgotten” 

“in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching”

One critique of the film was that it was exploitive of its side-show characters. MGM released a press release saying, “What about Siamese twins – have they no right to love? The pin-heads, the half-man, half-woman, the dwarfs! They have the same passions, joys, sorrows, laughter as normal human beings. Is such a subject untouchable?”

Decades after the film’s release, it began to garner a critical reappraisal. Many film critics gave it a retrospective review and hailed it as a misunderstood gem. Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Joe Morgenstern, claims the film boasts “some of the most terrifying scenes ever cosigned to film”. Film critic, Mark Kermode, noted that, “today, Browning’s sympathies are clear; if there are ‘freaks’ on display here, they are not the versatile performers to whom the title seems to allude”. Film theorist and critic, Andrew Sarris, proclaimed the film to be “one of the most compassionate films ever made”. 

The film was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 1994, the registry preserves “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” films. The film’s climatic scene was ranked 15th on Bravo TV’s list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. You can spot references to the film in ‘The Simpsons’, ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’, ‘South Park’, and dozens more.

Despite everything, the film has a lasting legacy to this day, in both pop culture and in representation. The film’s depiction of dwarfs, Siamese twins, bearded ladies, people without certain limbs/body parts, etc. as normal human beings, rather than villains or as throwaway jokes, is so important today. Now, there’s a whole show about people with dwarfism, ‘Little People, Big World’. However, one could argue that the reality TV-shows of today are just the modern equivalent of side-show performances, but that’s a topic for another day *wink*.

Movies and TV, most notably those that belong to the horror genre, tend to vilify those that are unaccepted and unwelcome by high society. These unaccepted people are classified as “freaks” or “the other.” Think of Leatherface or Frankenstein’s Monster or Quasimodo. All those “villains” I just described are just misunderstood people that society doesn’t know how to deal with. The same goes for those with mental disorders or physical disabilities. In vain of that thought came Freaks, a close look of those that high society would find appalling.

Freaks is a very touching and very terrifying film about how we perceive those different from us. Do we open our arms, or do we push them away, and what does that say about us?

We accept you. One of us. Gooble. Gobble. We accept you. One of us.

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