(1932) dir. Tod Browning
The word unique is definitely abused in regards to its application of meaning “the only one” or “without like or equal” (definitions borrowed from http:www.m-w.com), and people have tried to disabuse this by suggesting that there cannot be levels or “unique-ness”, meaning how can something be more “unique” than something else if by definition, it can only be unique if it is in fact unlike anything else? Well, I like to be a purist, but quite frankly, I do think that there are levels of uniqueness, despite the oxymoronic aspect of saying so. And I point all of this out to say that Tod Browning’s Freaks is about as unique as it gets.
I didn’t see the film until the 1980’s, on video or something, and it struck me the way that it strikes many. There is a strange power to the film, just watching the actual “freaks” with their deformities and their strange abilities. The sideshow was indeed captured here, and is now a fascinating artifact in a time when such exploitation is so frowned upon that one could hardly find the like in real life anymore. The people themselves have some amazing qualities, especially Johnny Eck, “The Half-Boy” and Prince Randian, “The Living Torso”. Just watching Randian who has no arms or legs, light a match and a cigarette with his mouth (apparently he also rolled the cigarette too), it’s nothing short of amazing. These people have become icons because of this film, but are actually captured in their reality, too, their actuality, their being.
Seeing this slough of human oddities is still shocking today, as I am sure it will be for years and years to come. It is a morbid and voyueristic curiosity that compels attention and interest simply because it is not a typical thing for one to see. Especially the fascinating array of sideshow specialties collected by Browning for this film.
Browning had a significant interest in sideshows, having traveled with one early in his career, and he had a fascination with human deformity that he utilized in other films, mostly with Lon Chaney, including the amazing The Unholy Three (1925). The film is interesting on a number of levels, and from an auteurist perspective of Browning, it’s quite pointed. Film historian David Skal has written extensively about Browning’s career and it’s quite interesting.
The film is a cult film for good reason. There are great moments of camp and bad acting. The freaks themselves are compelling in their uniqueness and difference.
But what I found to be the most powerful thing in the film is its finale, which I have read was truncated due to its shock value, and the additional footage lost. This is truly a shame because as the villainous strong man and the evil acrobat femme fatale are surrounded by lurking eyes of the freaks, preparing to dole out their “code” that “if you insult one freak, you insult us all”, the sequence unfolds into a masterpiece of horror. The villains are hunted down in in the pouring rain by the “freaks”, and punished by being “turned into” freaks themselves, a bizarre culmination and satisfyingly shocking climax to this amazing and stunning film.