We will make her one of us.”
The above is the haunting refrain of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks, a story of love and revenge set in a seedy travelling carnival.
Once you see Freaks you’ll never forget it… A legion of freaks pursue an evil woman through the rain and the mud, chanting, “We will make you…we will make you…one of us…one of us.” Amazingly, Freaks placed enormous restraint in presenting grisly violence, but the sight of seeing real freaks (not some actor in a mask or suit) pursuing a woman was a sight so bold for 1932 that people’s imaginations ran wild.
Director Tod Browning, who directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, worked at a carnival sideshow while growing up. Aged 16, he ran away to join the circus. His new life consisted of drifting from town to town, a carnival barker who befriended life’s outcasts, a collection of dwarves, bearded ladies, conjoined twins and men without arms or legs.
He knew their tight bonds formed since it was them against a world repulsed by their physical aspect. He culled a fascination with the grotesque and fuelled that with his fervid pulp imagination to create several crime and horror films influenced by the sideshow.
Though many have viewed Freaks as bizarre geek-show exploitation, even going so far as to ban its release in some countries for over 30 years, it’s difficult to fully condemn a movie which makes these then-feared folk into its most sympathetic characters. Browning never uses the film as an attempt to mock them, often using his camera as an attempt to chronicle their behaviour.
If anything, the movie is a fable about accepting others as you would want to be accepted yourself. Unfortunately, the studios and general public didn’t see it that way. Freaks was a commercial and critical flop all around. Just as the normal world shunned the freaks Browning knew growing up, so did his audience when he put them on-screen.
Only 40 years later did the film become recognised as a cult item and quality film, one which can be said to have been far ahead of its time.
The story is as simple as a fairy tale, running only a little over one hour of screen time. A dapper midget named Hans (Harry Earles) feels a forbidden love for a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), whose “normal” exterior belies a cruel and callous heart. She and her scheming boyfriend, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor), plot to marry the little man for his great fortune, then poison him. Midgets are not strong. No one would miss him, would they?
In one of the movie’s most unnerving sequences, Hans’ freakish companions gather for the wedding banquet pounding the table and chanting, “Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us.” A grinning dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) passes a wine goblet from one to another and they each sip, whipping themselves into a joyous frenzy which is disrupted by Cleopatra pouring the contents of the goblet over the dwarf’s head and laughing at him.
Cleopatra makes the willful mistake of mocking their efforts to bring her into their fold and openly expresses her disgust. She then casually flirts with Hercules right in front of poor Hans, and slips some poison into his champagne. Little does she know that her every action is being watched by the legion of freaks, who plot their revenge.
The film holds up fairly well today. The emotion and authenticity shines through, though, as the sideshow workers carry on with their lives around the tents and boxcars.
While the film throws in some padding with a friendly clown (Wallace Ford) and his girlfriend (Leila Hyams), who are kind to the freaks and even come to their aid throughout the film, and their rat-a-tat dialogue feels dated and corny, it doesn’t really hurt the film. Browning manages to cut through the cheese factor by showing the clown designing some of his circus acts (including a bathtub with no bottom, which comes in handy during one romance scene).
Anyone who sees Freaks will be unable to forget the conclusion, set during a wild rainstorm, where the freaks crawl through the mud underneath the horse-drawn carriages pursuing the strongman with glittering knives. We never see what they do to him, but we know it can’t be good. (Tod Browning actually planned on showing his fate, but the castration was too brutal to get past the censors.)
Similarly, we see Cleopatra threatened by a knife wielding dwarf and Johnny the Half Boy (Johnny Eck), who draws a luger and casually wipes it down with a white handkerchief. When she escapes from her room, she is chased into the woods, but we don’t actually see anyone inflict damage on her.
The film is so powerful that audiences imagined graphic torture and mutilation reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s goreless The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Folks swore they saw limbs go flying in that movie. Such is the power of implication, allowing the audience to imagine something more horrible than the filmmakers could create.
Tod Browning does indulge us in a final shot where we see the outcome of the freaks’ experiment on Cleopatra. Though he tosses a tacked-on happy ending for Hans afterwards, the real conclusion is when a carnival barker reveals his new sideshow freak. How they got her that way, we’ll never know. That will remain a mystery.