Friday, June 22, 2018

Movie Review: Freaks (1932)

Freaks (1932) directed by Todd Browning

A gold digger named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) has engaged guy Hans (Harry Earles) totally wrapped around her little finger. His fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles) is distraught, especially because Hans has an inheritance which seems like the gold digger's real interest. He winds up marrying Cleo, only to have some awkward moments at the wedding reception with his co-workers. The co-workers are ready to help him get revenge when it becomes clear she is poisoning Hans.

What sounds like a typical film noir is anything but typical, because the workplace is a traveling circus. The gold digger is a blonde trapeze artist and the guy is a dwarf. His fiancee is also a dwarf and they hang out with the other side show acts--the bearded lady, the bird woman, the siamese twins,  the half-woman half-man, the legless guy, the legless and armless guy, etc. They are the eponymous "freaks." So Cleo isn't exploiting just some film noir chump. He's a disrespected minority already being exploited for his abnormality. The film doesn't skimp on depicting her as a horrible person. She's romantically interested in the circus's strong man, Hercules (Henry Victor), who also mocks and laughs at Hans and his comrades. Cleo clearly plans to be with Hercules after she inherits Hans's fortune.

After they discover the scheme, the side show crowd bands together to enact a horrible revenge (viewers know this is coming because the opening shows an urban freak show where Cleopatra has wound up, though viewers don't see what has happened to her). Both Cleo and Hercules are pursued on a literally dark and stormy night. The action is tensely directed but before they are actually attacked, the film cuts back to the urban freak show where Cleo's new side-show appearance is revealed. The punishment fits the crime and is also too awful for words. The movie ends with a bittersweet reunion between Hans and Frieda.

The movie is highly sympathetic toward the deformed characters who are played by people with actual deformities. The issue of exploitation is not just internal to the plot, the movie itself blurs the line between an honest depiction and a salacious exploitation. For example, the film hints more than once at the awkwardness of sex given their various conditions. The main characters are well developed. The filmmakers strive to make their life look as normal as can be and succeed to a great extent. But the cast is large enough that a lot of people seem to be there for little more than appearance. It's hard not to be troubled by their plight and it's hard not to sympathize with them as they stalk Cleo and Hercules at the end. They have the same potential for good or evil that every other person has. In a moral sense, the movie affirms the normality of the so-called freaks. They are human beings and are (mostly) treated as such by the filmmakers if not by the characters in the film.

Recommended, though this movie is very tough to watch and not for the squeamish even though there is no real blood and minimal violence.

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