The exploitation of those considered abnormal or unusual, through the ages has long been considered entertainment for the masses. Genetic mutations or defects, physical abnormalities or disabilities, and mental afflictions have all had their share of audiences line up and pay through the nose to gawk and gasp at the side show of life.
Tattooed ladies, hermaphrodites, lobster boys, midgets, giants, limbless men, obese women and Siamese twins are just some of the people that were scouted by carnivals and traveling shows to be degraded, laughed at and send shivers down the spine of the ‘normals’. Sure, they got paid, and some of the most famous ‘Freaks’ on the circuit such as Juan Baptista dos Santos (The Man with Two Penises) and Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Woman) earned a hell of a living for the time, being the equivalent of our modern reality TV stars today both admired and abhorred in equal measure (though much more respectable and not morally abhorrent like a Kardashian or a ‘we wish she was lesser spotted’ Hilton …), proving that fame has always been a double edged sword.
We like to think that we have evolved from the days of entertaining ourselves with the misfortunes of others, pretending that as a species we are more accepting of the differences mere genetics can create in us, when really we have just got better at branding our judgement and voyeuristic natures. Embarrassing Bodies, Extreme OCD, Bedlam, and Britain’s Got Talent are all programmes that allow our inner demons to rubberneck and make disgusted noises, pitying gasps and cruel titters at the perceived failings of others. They might as well start charging for people to go into mental health wards like zoos, and let people gawp in person, for it seems there is nothing sacred these days.
There but for a roll of the genetic dice go you and I … lest you forget when you are making snap judgements at someone who you consider less fortunate than yourself (they are probably thinking the same thing about your sorry arse too, ironically), we are all flawed creatures in our own way, with vices and darkness’ that aren’t necessarily easy to spot by sight alone. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, and we all know that evil has nothing to do with the skin you’re in.
Unless it’s Leatherface … because that’s a whole other mess.
Based on the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins, Freaks is the story of a traveling show full wonderful characters like strong men, clowns, and a community of sideshow attractions known as freaks. Hans is engaged to fellow midget Freda until the scheming trapeze artist Cleopatra, and her lover Hercules, plot for her to marry him for his fortune and then murder him with poison. Unfortunately, they underestimate the loyalty of Hans’ friends in the carnival, and how far they’ll go to protect each other.
This is one of the greatest films ever made in my opinion, and to this day is just as relevant and as poignant as the very day it was wrapped. Extremely controversial in it’s day, it was banned for twenty years in Britain alone for the use of real vaudeville acts for the majority of the cast, which in my opinion is due to the fact society wasn’t ready to confront the ugly truth of their own prejudices, rather than the supposed exploitation of the actors.
There are echoes of the German expressionism that were such a big influences on Hollywood in the thirties while having the wit and humour that has kept the film as fresh as it is. There is an eerie quality to the film that has nothing to do with the unique appearances of the so called ‘freaks’, and more to do with the way they are treated by those who they encounter, and the way they just get on with their lives just like everybody else. I have to say that watching a man with no limbs roll and light is own cigarette, when I cant do it with all of mine present and in working order, a humbling thing, and is something to be seen believe me.
Shaky camera work, visible boom shadows and jarring editing are all present but once the film has started, it all falls away as the film unfolds. Hypnotic, eerie, and wise beyond it’s years Freaks is a cautionary tale with horror elements that ends in a chilling climax that has become part of celluloid legend.
The only gripe I do have with the film is that it does a very good job at challenging stigma by forcing the audience to confront their preconceptions by viewing the human oddities as people and not monsters, but with such a cruel climax, I cant help but think that Browning undoes all of his hard work with a single scene.
It is however one of the best films you will see, from both a horror fan perspective and a critical one, for it has every element an audience could desire; laughs, scares, sadness, characters that you care about, and a memorable payoff that stands the test of time.
Monsters are what we make them, and we all know no one makes a monster like Hollywood … just look at Jackie Stallone …