Let’s go to the circus.
Freaks is one of those films that’s reputation greatly exceeds whatever content is within the narrative. Hailed frequently as “one of the most disturbing films ever,” contemporary audiences may be a little confused watching it. Instead of blood and guts, we get a story about bonding together, humanity, and obsession.
A large part of the legacy of this film is the cut content that is probably lost forever. More footage showing the revenge aspects apparently exists, but it is hard to determine how disturbing this stuff is—particularly today.
Another aspect of controversy may be the humanization of individuals with physical deformities or birth defects. I would like to say this is not a controversy in 2019, but we still seem to have a hard time condemning Nazis, so maybe this film needs to be shown more.
The film tries to give us a look into the lives of many of these so-called freaks as they are working from town to town performing for people. We have a mixture of people with acrobatic talents and people with deformities as the attractions. Our principal interests are Hans (Harry Earles-part of the Doll Family) and his obsession with acrobatic Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She manipulates him and tricks him into buying her lavish gifts at the promise of returned affection.
There are many other characters but getting to know them is a large part of the fun. Venus (Leola Hyams) serves as our guide through this world as she tries to find her place. She is the first to realize that the freaks are good people, and that many of the others looks down upon them.
A major theme is how tightknit the freaks have to be, and this makes sense when you think about how poorly they were seen (probably even today). We see them care for one another and look out for danger.
The major message of the film is that people are people—no matter what they look like. Another message is that we should treat everyone with respect because if you don’t, they might team up and fuck you up, which I think is pretty awesome.
The film has aged well enough. We still have stutters in the frames as the reels were changed and lighting is inconsistent. There is a colorized version out there, but I think the original black and white is the way to go. The narrative focuses too much on certain aspects and too little on others, but this seems to be more a trend with older films. For example, we spend a lot of time making sure we know Cleopatra is manipulating Hans, but very little on Venus’ blooming romance with the clown.
Narrative imbalances aside, this is an interesting film to watch. It is one of those that is worth seeing because of its large place in our culture. I don’t imagine it will be your favorite, but it is thought provoking. Alamo Drafthouse screens it occasionally, so if you have a chance to see it on the big screen it is an interesting watch.