For a very long time I avidly avoided Tod Browning’s “Freaks” simply because it was one of those films that I was intimidated by. While very few films leave me tainted, “Freaks” is a film I was afraid would be cheap, exploitative, and nauseating. “Freaks” is by all accounts one of the most downbeat horror classics ever made. Especially in the face of director Browning’s horror classic “Dracula.”
It’s a film that tests the limits of human cruelty, and by all accounts explains that even though the freaks featured in the film have their own disfigurements, they too can be cruel, vicious, and vindictive like any of the able bodied individuals they come across. One of the reasons why I love “Freaks” is because years after watching it I learned about the original short story this film was based on and it’s gladly just as twisted as this adaptation. While the endings stray from one another, the punishment doled out for the wicked Cleopatra is justifiably twisted. Hans is a sideshow little person who is due to inherit a large fortune. Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist for the circus devises a plan with another performer named Hercules.
The plan becomes a twisted series of scenarios where in Hans will humiliate himself, fall ill, and inevitably leave his fortune to Cleopatra. Much of “Freaks” is spent on showing how human and vulnerable the freaks can be, and that their desires match those without deformities. There’s even a sub-plot where the sideshow’s conjoined woman falls for the circus owner and engages in an affair with him, while her sister feels every bit of euphoria and arousal between them. When Hans does get taken advantage of, Cleopatra’s own sense of vanity is her own undoing. Especially during her infamous drinking scene where the freaks welcome her in to the fold with a chant.
Perhaps she’s just appalled to be considered one, or is staring down a future where she may be forced to birth a child in the same mold as Hans, but this ultimately proves to unfold the plans for Hans. When Hans falls ill, the freaks are able to show that they can be as welcoming and sweet as people without deformities. Even worse, they’re just as deadly and cruel as anyone without deformities. The climax allows for one of the most spine tingling sequences in horror history. The closing shot is demented, morbid, and just what the doctor ordered. Tod Browning’s “Freaks” is a masterpiece of the horror mold, and one that warrants a loyal audience.