HOLLYWOOD, CA: Freaks, a horror movie from the early days of talking pictures, has long been a controversial film. Its auteur, director and writer Tod Browning (Dracula), saw his career ruined by it. Produced just prior to the introduction of the Hayes Code, the movie censorship code enforced from the 1934 to 1967, it is creepier than the usual fare released by the studios at the time.
The film is notorious for casting real circus sideshow “freaks” (i.e. people with real physical deformities) as the cast of the film. In the film, it is the freaks who are the good and honorable people, and the physically normal people in the film who are the evil ones.
Cleopatra is the beautiful and physically attractive trapeze artist who conspires with Hercules the Strongman to gain the inheritance of Hans the midget. In order to do this, Cleopatra marries Hans, as Hercules begins a slow process of poisoning him. This causes some discomfort among the sideshow performers, who at first are unwilling to accept the notion of a normal woman marrying one of their own. However, the freaks come to trust her and accept her into their extended family. A ritualistic acceptance ceremony frightens Cleopatra at the wedding, who drunkenly reveals her contempt and disgust for the freaks. Her affair with Hercules is revealed, humiliating Hans. Cleopatra apologizes and Hans warily stays with her.
Hans, however, becomes wise to the plan as he become ill from the poison, and stops taking the medicine Cleopatra brings him. During a dark, stormy night the freaks extract their revenge on Cleopatra in a gruesome and bone-chilling manner, turning her into a true sideshow freak in the process. It is easily one of the creepier horror films ever to come out of Hollywood.
The reaction to the film was almost unanimously hostile. Deemed exploitative, the film was banned in the United Kingdom until the 1960’s. In America, the film was a box office bomb. Browning’s career was destroyed; despite his enormous success with Dracula, he had difficulty finding work again after Freaks. Some people still see the film as exploitation, despite the fact that the performers in it had been performing for many years and had enjoyed considerable fame at the time. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the film enjoyed a rehabilitation of sorts as it became a mainstay midnight movie in art houses. A modern viewer will note the expensive and well-designed sets, the strong performances by the actors, and keen directing. It is a mishmash; both brilliant and awful at the same time. However, it is now seen as the classic film it never was. Rotten Tomatoes rates it as 93% fresh, and the American Film Institute nominated it for its AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list. It was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 1994.