Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon (suggested by the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins)
Stars: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Rose Dione (Mme. Tetrallini)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: U.S.
Freaks Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Fascinating, unsettling, and genuinely touching, Todd Browning’s Freaks is a notorious contradiction of a film. Populated by actors and performers with actual congenital anomalies, including a man with no arms and no legs, another man who walks on his hands because he has no body from the mid-torso down, a human skeleton, a bearded woman, and Siamese twins, it was long misunderstood as a sensationalistic exploitation film, primarily because that was how it was sold. However, when viewed on its own terms, it becomes clear that Freaks is an empathetic drama about the pains of being different and the power of interpersonal bonds. Browning, who had worked in circus sideshows as a young man throughout the 1890s, treats the film’s malformed characters—who are described in the opening sequence by the dour carnival barker as “living, breathing monstrosities”—with a sympathetic touch. Both nature and humankind have turned their backs on them, so they have only each other to lean on.

Running just over an hour in length, Freaks was loosely based on (“suggested by,” per the credits) the 1923 short story “Spurs” by horror and mystery author Tod Robbins, whose 1917 novel The Unholy Three had been adapted by Browning as a film of the same title in 1925 (one of his ten collaborations with Lon Chaney). The protagonist of Freaks is Hans, a little person with a broad, child-like face played by Harry Earles, who had previously starred in The Unholy Three and was the one who initially brought “Spurs” to Browning’s attention. Hans works in Mme. Tetrallini’s traveling carnival as one of the sideshow attractions, and like the other “freaks” of the title, he is mostly rejected by the so-called “normal” members of the carnival. Only Mme. Tetrallini (Rose Dione), who refers to the them as her “children,” Phroso, the head clown (Wallace Ford), and Venus, the seal trainer (Leila Hyams), treat Hans and the others with dignity or respect. Although Hans is engaged to be married to another little person, Frieda (Daisy Earles, his real-life sister), his heart is enamored with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a sultry trapeze artist who is involved with Hercules (Henry Victor), the self-absorbed strongman.

Cleopatra and Hercules cruelly amuse themselves with Hans’s awkward romantic advances, which include sending her flowers and visiting her trailer. When Cleopatra learns that Hans has inherited a great deal of wealth, she concocts a scheme to marry him and then poison him so she and Hercules can make off with the money. However, Hans learns of her plan, and the carnival freaks band together in a revenge plot that is as horrifying as it is appropriate—“a climax that achieves the texture and imagery of a screaming nightmare,” as Louis B. Mayer biographer Scott Eyman put it. This was not how Browning wanted to end it; rather, he wanted a sad ending that eschewed anything overtly horrific in favor of a focus on the freaks’ unending isolation from regular society. But, he was overruled by the executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), who wanted to out-horrify the competition and got more than they bargained for in Browning’s thundering, expressionistic climax.

Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was, according to Eyman, appalled by the film. Of course, the fact that Mayer, the powerful head of the largest and most profitable Hollywood studio in the 1930s, had anything to do with Freaks is part of the film’s fascinating history. Irving Thalberg, MGM’s vice president in charge of production, had taken note of Universal’s success with Dracula (1931), which helped lay the groundwork for the then-nascent horror genre. Thalberg wanted MGM to get into the horror game, and he lured Browning, who directed Dracula, away from Universal, signing him to a three-picture deal (Browning had actually been under contract with MGM in the mid-1920s, where he directed some of his most famous collaborations with Chaney, including The Unholy Three and 1927’s The Unknown). Browning was not a particularly stylized filmmaker, which means he was usually content to use a static camera with little editing. He was deeply influenced by German Expressionism, and that is evident in Freaks’ climactic revenge sequence, which takes place during a thunderous rainstorm. Browning builds a real sense of terror and suspense with editing, lighting, and carefully angled shots. He also allows his actors to do much of the work, which we especially see in a scene where Cleopatra, at the dinner following her marriage to Hans, is utterly repulsed by the carnival freaks merrily singing, “We accept you, one of us.”

When Freaks was released, the fact that its sympathies are clearly invested in its titular characters was lost on critics and audiences, who viewed them as repulsive and disgusting. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see beneath the film’s shocking veneer to recognize that it is actually about looking past the superficiality of physical appearances. Browning’s use of people with genuine physical abnormalities was a gamble here, and one that backfired initially, although it is key to the film’s effectiveness for those willing to see it for what it really is. Browning initially elicits real unease from the audience at seeing the titular freaks, which initially aligns viewers with the “normal” characters on-screen who shun them. Yet, he is later able to draw sympathy for them, because once the initial shock of their predicament wears off, we begin to see them for what they are: real human beings with feelings, emotions, fears, and desires. Physical exteriors, the film insists, are just that—shells in which we exist—and it is sometimes the conventionally beautiful people—in this case, Cleopatra and Hercules—who are the true monsters (which offers a major thematic shift from the short story, where the Hans character is very much a monster).

Initial audiences’ misreading of Freaks is at least partly due to the fact that its advertising campaign made no mention of the underlying human emotions. The original release posters asked such sensationalistic questions as “Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” and “Do Siamese twins make love?,” which cast the film itself as a sideshow exhibit (MGM later tried to market it on humanistic grounds, but by then it was too late). It ended up losing a great deal of money, and it was banned in a number of countries. MGM tried to wash their hands of the film by first burying it for a decade and a half, and then by licensing it for 25 years to exploitation distributor Dwain Esper (Damaged Lives, Maniac, Reefer Madness), who changed the title to Forbidden Love and tacked on a disingenuous opening crawl that attempted to frame it in the same kind of faux-educational discourse that he used for films about drug addiction and venereal disease.

Freaks was eventually rescued from exploitation purgatory, initially by European critics and audiences. It was revived in 1962 at the Venice Film Festival, which led to various critical re-evaluations, including an influential write-up in the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, which notes that the film is “horrific,” but also reveals “warmth and humanity,” and a 1964 piece in Film Quarterly in which John Thomas called it “a minor masterpiece.” Later that decade it was embraced by the counterculture and became a staple of midnight screenings throughout the 1970s alongside other arthouse shockers like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978). Since then, Freaks has been rightly recognized as one of Browning’s best films and one of the most unique, challenging, and provocative films of the early sound era.

Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers Criterion Collection 3-Disc Blu-ray Set
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers Criterion Collection Blu-ray SetThis two-disc Blu-ray set contains three films: The Mystic (1925), The Unknown (1927), and Freaks (1932).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (all films)
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (The Unknown and Freaks)
  • Linear PCM 2.0 stereo (The Mystic)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentaries on Freaks and The Unknown by film scholar David J. Skal
  • Video introduction by Skal to The Mystic
  • Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema documentary
  • Video interview with author Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horror
  • Episode from 2019 of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business about disability representation in Freaks
  • Reading by Skal of “Spurs,” the short story by Tod Robbins on which Freaks is based
  • Prologue to Freaks, which was added to the film in 1947
  • Program on the alternate endings to Freaks
  • Video gallery of portraits from Freaks
  • Essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 17, 2023

    Criterion’s two-disc set “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers” is a major release that reveals three of the director’s most significant later films in an all-new light. Freaks has been given its first high-definition transfer, which has it looking better than it ever has on home video (the last official release was back in 2005 on DVD); The Unknown has been restored and reconstructed for an all-new transfer; and The Mystic is being released on video for the first time in Region 1. Freaks certainly looks the best of the three films, as it was scanned in 5K from a 35mm nitrate duplicate negative and a 35mm safety print. The 1.37:1 image looks excellent, with solid detail, contrast, and black levels, which are particularly important in the dark, rainy climax. There are few if any signs of age and wear, and any digital restoration that was done has left intact the film’s fine grain structure. The Unknown was the hardest of the three films to restore, as an opening title card explains that it “was reconstructed from the only two surviving nitrate prints, a French-language version in the George Eastman Museum collection and a Czech-language version in the Národní filmový archiv, Prague.” The intertitles were “recreated based on the original cutting continuity provided by Jon Mirsalis.” The reconstruction, alas, was not perfect, as some material remains missing: “Based on the music cue sheet, the original release length of the film was 5,470 ft. The length of this reconstruction is 5,326 ft.” Nevertheless, this is a major improvement over previous DVD releases, even though the results are rough at times, with instances of irreparable damage and missing frames. The Mystic looks quite a bit better, even though it is two years older. That film was scanned in 2K from a 35mm safety fine grain print, which looks surprisingly clean for its age.

    As far as sound goes, Freaks’ original monaural soundtrack was restored by Criterion from an archival two-inch magnetic track. As an early synchronized sound film, its soundtrack is a bit thin and flat, but it works perfectly well. Both The Mystic and The Unknown have been given new musical scores. The Mystic features the better of the two, as sound designer and composer Dean Hurley has put together an engrossing, hallucinatory score that makes use of all manner of instruments including classical guitar, accordion, pump organ, and bells (not surprisingly, he has collaborated with David Lynch on a number of films). The soundtrack also features quite a few sound effects, such as footsteps, doors closing, papers rustling, and so on. The score for The Unknown by prolific silent film composer Philip Carli is quite good, as well, although it is a more conventional piano-only score.

    Not surprisingly, film historian and horror film expert David J. Skal, co-author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre, had a major hand in many of the supplements. Skal provides informative new audio commentaries for both The Unknown and Freaks, as well as a 10-minute audio introduction to The Mystic. He is also recorded reading the entirety of “Spurs,” the Tod Robbins short story on which Freaks is based. The two-disc set also includes the 2004 documentary Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, which runs an hour in length and previously appeared on the Warner Bros.’ Freaks DVD. We also get a new 30-minute interview with crime novelist Megan Abbott about Browning’s pre-Code film career. To give some further context for the controversies around Freaks, the disc includes a 2019 episode of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business, which focuses on the representation of disability in the film. From the archives we have the Dwain Esper-added prologue to Freaks, which was tacked on starting in 1947 and was misunderstood for years as being part of the original film; a 6-minute featurette about the film’s alternate endings; and a video gallery of portraits from Freaks.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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