Freaks – Todd Browning – DVD – Made in 1932, from the director of Dracula, Freaks essentially ended Browning’s career due to it being deemed too controversial-and thus preventing him from ever being able to fund another film. Banned for 30 years, the film tells the story of a community of circus ‘freaks’ – each one played by actual circus performers (Browning had in fact joined the circus at one point in his life). It was based on the story Spurs, by Todd Robbins and revolves around a married midget who falls for an acrobat. The acrobat manipulates his love and attempts to exploit him. Despite an obvious and age old recycled narrative, the film creates an entertaining tone of bawdy and energetic humour – displaying the ‘freaks’ in their gypsy community, in a way which manages to balance a fascination with the freakshow motley cast and a genuine humanism.
The first time we encounter the ‘freaks’ still carries a weight of shock today, playing in a clearing in an idyllic forest we see: a man without legs walking on his hands, a man who is simply a torso and a head, three siblings dressed as young girls but with the facial features of disabled grown men and a lady who seems to be looking after all of them in a bizarrely simplified maternal manner. The scene has an alarming realism (due to each of the performers being and playing themselves), while conversely toying with a queasy fairy tale aesthetic (with the forest and the self assigned mother – her circus freaks, playing like lost orphans). However, throughout the course of the film, as a viewer you feel yourself becoming immersed in the world, realizing that Browning’s portrayal achieves a rare and strange tension between authentic understanding and unnerving spectacle. Critics have pointed out the troublesome connotations of one scene, in which the ‘freaks’ are shown writhing menacingly through the mud in pouring rain. However, questions of morality or suspect exploitation and voyeurism seem redundant, as the film ultimately uses the supposed ‘freaks’ to illuminate the corruption and twisted nature of those who define themselves against the ‘freaks’. It is those who maintain a sense of distinction and superiority who are called into question.
The film has a series of terrific scenes: the man who is just a torso and a head lighting a cigarette, with the innovative dexterity of his moustache; the ‘One of Us’ chant; the poignant comedy of the Siamese twins; fire eaters, sword eaters and the overarching tragedy and moving power of the simplistic narrative. A film that surprised me in its emotional strength and spectrum: times unsettling and frightening, often comic and tragic, and sometimes beautiful. An oddly charming, deceptively powerful masterpiece that deserves to be recognized as a piece of art as disarmingly simple as it is hauntingly complex. 9/10