Horror is a peculiar genre of film. Like crime and thrillers, its basic motivation is human fear, but unlike any other genre, it derives that fear from our loathing of the abnormal and unknown.
With Freaks, director Tod Browning has created a film that is like no other, nor will there ever be one like it. Browning assembled for his production a number of real freaks. Coneheads, dwarfs, a man without arms or legs, the human skeleton, the person who is half man and half woman, and several others. But instead of making this abnormality fearsome, Browning turns everything around and shows the freaks in a sympathetic light. Not making us feel sorry for them or making them ridiculous, but making them actually come through as real people.
Freaks is commonly categorized as a horror movie. In this film, however, the monsters are the ones with human emotions, while the normal humans are the monsters inside. Herein lies the real strength of Freaks – it does not exploit the freaks as such. It depicts them with love and affection. Ironically, it shows the freaks as being part of a circus, a travelling freak show, so the horror element is still there but from a reverse angle and cast in a revealing light.
The movie begins as the midget Hans falls in love with a normal woman, the trapeze artist Cleopatra, and abandons his fiancée Frieda. But does Cleopatra really love him, or is she just after the money he inherited? Browning plays out his drama upon this conflict, but the important thing here is not really the plot. Rather it is about emotions, reactions and attitudes.
For an early sound film, Freaks is uncommonly advanced in visual terms. The camera often comes down to the level of the smaller freaks, and there are several effective dolly track shots, a technique which became less common with the heavier cameras necessary for making sound film.
Freaks was controversial when it was made. It was banned in several countries, and it caused Browning’s career to go downhill. It was also cut with almost a half hour. The original version was publicly screened, but is now considered lost.
This film is best enjoyed when your world needs to be turned upside down for a while.
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (697 M)