Director: Tod Browning
Runtime: 64 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
“Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” goes the lurid tagline to this 1932 circus drama directed by Tod Browning, who had previously helmed films like West of Zanzibar (1928) and Dracula (1931). In the world of sideshow “freaks,” trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) messes with the wrong troupe of malformed outcasts when she tries to marry little person Hans (Harry Earles) for his immense fortune. Silly and grotesque, this one’s influence is not to underestimated.
The carnival “freaks” here are played by the real deal. There’s actual “pinheads,” little people, conjoined twins, a bearded woman, and even a limbless man. It’s not really a horror film for most of its runtime, being more of a behind-the-scenes showbiz melodrama for a considerable amount of the time. That being said, horror elements really do kick in in the last ten or so minutes that must’ve made 1932 viewers shit bricks. Unfortunately, it proved a bit too nightmarish for test audiences and some footage had to be deleted…and is now presumably lost forever. Still, the stuff left in the final cut is still impressive.
In all honesty, this isn’t the most well-made movie I’ve ever seen. The acting is mostly pretty dubious and the dialogue is often difficult to understand. The plot takes a while to get going (despite a runtime of only 64 minutes), and the direction sometimes feels a bit uninteresting during the non-horror stuff. However, Freaks is less about its artistic quality and more about raw shock value. It succeeds.
Made during the almost-anything-goes Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the Production Code was enforced), this is one of the emblematic pictures of that time period. If you’re not expecting a full-on horror film, you’ll enjoy it. Also, why on Earth does Hans bother humiliating himself as a sideshow “freak” when he has a fortune? Did I miss something?
My rating is 7 outta 10.