From a cautionary tale to a cult classic, the journey of Tod Browning’s Freaks is one of the best known of the era, as Browning’s perceived failure and the movie’s controversial subject matter drove him into obscurity.
Now, it’s regarded as one of the finest genre films ever made, and rightly so.
Circus leader Hans (Harry Earles) falls head over heels for the Big Top’s new star attraction, the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Although the rest of the troupe worry about why someone like her would fall for a dwarf, they put their concerns aside when it’s announced that the two are going to marry.
However, their concerns are well founded, as Cleopatra has been scheming with strongman Hercules (Harry Victor) to kill Hans and inherit his vast fortune.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the impact of Browning’s film might have been lessened slightly over the years, whether due to its influence on pop culture, from Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love to the most recent season of American Horror Story, or simply due to us being harder to shock these days. With every successive viewing, however, Freaks resonates as strongly as it ever did.
As the screeching hysteria of the time is overlooked, Browning places the audience among the people who work as attractions, showing their everyday lives, and introducing Cleopatra as the cruel interloper, whose lover and confidante is the brutish strongman. The filmmaker is clearly fascinated by these people, but there’s a tenderness here that is often overlooked.
Of course, there are the obligatory relatable ‘normal’ characters and their budding romance, but the real story is that of Hans, and the reaction of the performers when they realise that he’s been deceived. The final punishment of Cleopatra and Hercules is still nightmarish, but it’s that party scene that continues to provide the film with its most iconic moments, as the bride hysterically refuses the celebration goblet offered by Angeleno.
With strong performances and a surprising tenderness, Freaks more than deserves its towering reputation.