Yay, it’s October, and that means it’s time for the annual Bruner Halloween movie festival! Our first movie this year was one I’ve wanted to see for a long time, Freaks, from 1932. Freaks is famous, indeed notorious, for using actual circus sideshow exhibits from the time in its cast–little people, people suffering from microcephaly (called pinheads in the movie), Siamese twins, people born without legs or arms or both, and many others. It’s something that could never be repeated today, making this a movie unique in film history.
The plot of Freaks is fairly straightforward. The freaks are part of a traveling circus where, as a circus barker explains, the freaks live as outsiders and by their own code–“Offend one, and you offend them all!” One of the freaks, the little person, Hans, has fallen in love with the beautiful but normal-sized trapeze artist, Cleopatra, much to the chagrin of his fiance, Frieda. Cleopatra realizes Hans has a crush on her and encourages it, perhaps out of vanity, but when she learns Hans is the heir to a great fortune, she decides to make him really fall in love with her so they’ll get married. Then she’ll poison him and inherit the money. Cleopatra’s lover is the circus strongman, Hercules, who’s in on the plot and thinks it’s a great joke.
Hans and Cleopatra do get married, and at the wedding feast, the freaks have a little ritual to induct Cleopatra into their circle, when they pass around a huge wine goblet for everyone to sip from communally while they sing a chant. (Gooble gabble gooble gabble We accept her! We accept her!) However, Cleopatra is drunk and takes offense at the presumption that the freaks are accepting her, and causes a big scene. She also kisses Hercules and everyone realizes her love for Hans was a sham.
Cleopatra has poisoned Hans’s drink and he falls ill after the wedding. Back at the circus, she dotes on Hans in his sickbed and tries to convince him she didn’t mean what she said during her outburst at the wedding, even as she’s poisoning his medicine. However, Hans is spitting out his medicine when Cleopatra leaves the room. Meanwhile, the freaks, whose code dictates they must take revenge if one of their own is harmed, wait for their moment.
On a rainy night, when the circus wagons are en route to a new city, one of the wagons overturns and the whole train of wagons must stop. During the confusion, the freaks, armed with knives and cudgels, corner Hercules under one of the wagons and kill him, and carve Cleopatra up, making her into a freak like them. She shows up in the final scene with her tongue cut out, her fingers missing, and her legs amputated, and the show’s impresario has put feathers on her and billed her as “The Human Duck.”
My daughter pointed out afterwards that this isn’t really a horror movie. Indeed, I’d call it a melodrama. The only way it works as a horror movie is if you think the freaks themselves are horrifying, but that just doesn’t work. The dapper, well-spoken little person Hans, the friendly and outgoing Half Boy (born without legs), the quite pretty Daisy and Violet (Siamese twins), the sad-eyed and gentle Koo Koo the Dancing Bird (microcephaly), the happily married Human Skeleton and Bearded Lady, and many others–these people are simply not horrifying, so long as you overlook their physical deformities. Indeed, the real freaks are Cleopatra and Hercules, who are beautiful on the outside but deformed morally, and who get what they deserve in the end.
In fact, I’m a little worried that this movie won’t score very well on my horror movie rubric, despite being an interesting movie in its own right. Let’s see how it goes.
Story/Plot/Characters— A fascinating premise never to be repeated in film, with highly memorable characters and a well-executed plot, if a bit slow-paced at the beginning. Dialogue not too sparkling, the only real flaw. (3 points)
Special Effects–No real special effects, but none needed–the sideshow freaks are the special effects. (2 points)
Scariness–Simply not scary. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness–As you’d expect, a movie named Freaks is awfully freaky. The wedding feast with the chant and the final scene with the freaks hiding in the dark under the wagons as it rains all around are pretty atmospheric. (2 points)
Total=7 points (Excellent)
Well, it turned out to score Excellent according to my system, although just barely. Still, I don’t think that truly does justice to this movie, which has been on my mind often in the days since we’ve watched it. What’s really interesting is an accompanying video on the same DVD with short biographies of each of the freaks, even those mostly in the background. The variety of deformities and their lives in circus sideshows or on the margins of society make for fascinating if often sad (but not always!) life stories, in particular the little person Harry Earles (Hans in the movie), who had a substantial movie career from the 1920s to 40s, including as a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz.