Is this a true classic, or as deceptive as Cleopatra?
I didn’t know what to expect from Freaks. Though not quite a Casablanca or Gone With the Wind in terms of reputation and acclaim, it is undeniably a classic in its own right. Would I be seeing a campy and dated horror film? Would it just be mediocre by today’s standards? Whatever I thought going into it, I could never have expected how touching a film it was and how much I unequivocally enjoyed it. This film deserves not to be known for inspiring a season of American Horror Story (Freak Show), or for being banned, but as a fantastic piece of cinema. It was designed to break preconceptions, and it broke mine.
This is a film about the importance of solidarity and accepting all no matter who they are. Cleopatra, a ‘beautiful’ trapeze artist, has enchanted the dwarf Hans and is to marry him. However, we discover that Cleopatra merely wants his fortune, and looks down upon her fellow circus performers as being ‘Freaks!’. After one of the most quotable and powerful scenes I have ever seen, in which Cleopatra refuses their request to become ‘one of us!’ on the day of her wedding to Hans, they quickly cotton on to her real motive. They then exact their horrific revenge, in a terrifying climactic chase scene. Cleopatra is tarred and feathered, has her legs removed, and speaks like a chicken. It is a nightmarish scene, with harrowing imagery. The film luckily shies away from a campy tone, delivering a thought-provoking and disturbing, yet strangely touching, experience instead.
Through this description, it may sound like I am vilifying the ‘freaks’ for their gruesome attack on Cleopatra. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The film spends so much time humanising these characters and fleshing them out. Director Tod Browning challenges viewers, keeping us amongst the ‘freaks’, letting them be seen with an intimacy still unrivalled. The theatricality of their real jobs could be the basis for the sincerity and brilliance of their confident performances, and this helps us to relate to them. We learn not to see them as the ‘freaks’ people so commonly judge them as, but as humans with unique personalities and aspirations, able to love, laugh and feel pain. They see the world like us and feel the same emotions. They are humans. Browning makes us look past any preconceptions. He could easily have made a horror film where the ‘freaks’ are devoid of humanity. Considering this is a 1930’s film, he would have been able to. He doesn’t though, and that makes this film commendable and even heartwarming. He spent time in his life living with circus ‘freaks’, and whether they are smaller, less conventionally attractive or intelligent, he treats them as people. Cleopatra however, treats them as meaningless and pathetic beasts.
Though the attack on Cleopatra is horrific, it’s forgivable as they have been oppressed their whole lives. They are forced to forge respect for themselves and are morally above the contempt-ridden Cleopatra. Though the attack does risk doing so, I don’t think it detracts from or betrays our sympathy and respect for the ‘freaks’ or distorts the film’s message. Cleopatra attempts to murder Hans, lacking a shred of humanity or compassion. She is superficial and shallow and feels superior to all. She relies on her appearance to manipulate others, and this emphasis on looks explains her name. Frieda, Hans’ real love, perfectly juxtaposes her. Though less in stature, she treats others with an honest love and respect that Cleopatra could never replicate and is selfless. She is superior in every way as a person, displaying true beauty. Though arguably excessively gruesome, Cleopatra’s deformity highlights that she is the real freak. She deserves no sympathy as she has none for others. Her fate fits the framework of a horror film with the catharsis it evokes. She gets what she deserves. Cleopatra had to be stopped, or she would have torn apart the community and the fabric of their lives. If she was not punished it would excuse and even promote intolerance and discrimination.
This masterpiece truly has stood the test of time, and still retains its tenderness and its progressiveness. It is a hugely original, innovative, and challenging film, made in a mature manner with sublime production and direction. Tod Browning deserves infinite praise for making not just an incredible film, but one full of heart, with a message which is just as relevant, if not more so now, than it was over 80 years ago. He gives a voice to the voiceless, and his intentions are laudable. Not many films can be so politically minded and still fit in with mainstream views nearly a century on, but this one can. Though the world of Browning’s circus is small, the message of the movie is universal. It deserves its status as a humanitarian cinematic classic.