Freaks (1932)

FreaksPosterDear readers, welcome to Schlock Wave’s 300th post! I never thought we’d make it this far, especially given the forty-film backlog that sits mockingly on my computer’s desktop, but here we are. Having so many films to choose from I felt I had to pick the one that was just right for #300, and the choice was quite easy. While the films covered on this blog are by no means consistently cult-y, b, or horror, that was my initial intent, and as a result I felt Tod Browning’s Freaks was a most appropriate choice for this landmark post. So, here goes, and thanks for reading!

I’m not quite sure how I first caught wind of Freaks. How the heck did anyone learn about anything before the internet? The answer is probably USA’s Up All Night, or some other such nonsense that has, for good or for ill, shaped the person I am today. At any rate, I probably didn’t know the weight of what I was watching the first time I saw it. As an adult with the wisdom of a small handful of decades behind me (and a husband who teaches a cult film class) I have at least some sense of the importance of Freaks in the cult film canon. That adds an interesting bit to the brain while watching Freaks today, and ultimately makes it a more interesting movie than it would be standing on its own.

The film tells the story of Cleopatra, a beautiful but detestable trapeze artist traveling with a carnival. She’s having a torrid and secret love affair with Hercules the strong man, and together they laugh and mock the sideshow freaks. But publicly, Cleopatra claims to love Hans, a little person with a large inheritance. Despite the fact that Hans is quite loved by his fiancee (another little person) Frieda, he ignores her and the warnings of the other ‘freaks’ and agrees to marry Cleopatra.

Although Hans’ cohort has their suspicions about Cleopatra, the flowing champagne must have got to their collective head, and in an effort to show they have embraced Cleopatra in all her normalcy, they offer her up a toast. Their chant of “We accept her, we accept her! One of us! One of us! Gobble-gobble!” is anything but welcoming to the nasty Cleopatra, and she flips the fuck out, throwing wine in their faces and shouting about how disgusting they are. But Hans sticks with her, and though she mocks him and his crew, he heads back to the wagon with his new wife.

It doesn’t take much for the freaky crew, and Hans himself, to discover that Cleopatra is slowly trying to poison Hans to death. Hercules has plans of his own for some of the nosier “normals” who are sympathetic to the freaks. Once the freaks catch wind of it all, they plan their final, horrible revenge: as the carnival heads out to their next destination, under cover of storm, they amass and attack the nasty Cleopatra and turn her into a freak show of epic proportions.

I think it is pretty safe to say that Freaks is the quintessential cult film, not just because its subject matter relegates it to the weirder corners of film, but also because its main focus can arguably be said to describe its audience. After all, we’re the rejected weirdos who sought out such a thing. What’s freakier than wanting to watch a bunch of freaks band together and exact a terrible revenge on an uppity normal?

That, of course, could not have been Browning’s objective in making this film. But what was? Browning himself joined the circus at a young age, so perhaps part of what he wanted to show his audience was that a carnival’s sideshow freaks are just as normal as you and me; they eat, sleep, dream, and love. This would explain Browning’s focus on the ‘freaks’ going about their everyday lives (rolling cigarettes with their mouths because they have no limbs, using a fork with their toes because they have no arms, etc.) eating up a lot of screen time. In the end, though, it feels pretty exploitative, like the sideshow itself must have been, and certainly marks Freaks a product of its era. A film such as this couldn’t be made today, at least not in the same ways, and if it were, it would most likely be reviled by all, even perhaps the small subset of cultists who were meant to embrace it.

But if Browning had intended to humanize these ‘freaks,’ why then would he turn them into vengeful monsters at the end? And really, does it matter what Browning’s intention was? I would argue it’s the cult audience that lends the true meaning to a film. And while I wouldn’t dare speak for an entire group of people, I will venture to say I’m probably not the only one to cheer when the freaks overtake Cleopatra and indeed make her “one of us.” And being the type of person who actively attempts to convert “normal” people into freaks every day by forcing them to sit down and watch a cult film, of course I’d celebrate Cleopatra’s metamorphosis!


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