It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Today, it’s time to cover the circus thriller from the 30s: Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Horror/thriller films surrounding the circus are always an intense watch. Some of the attractions may be hard to look at, and some of what happens to them are vile. These are people nonetheless. Circus freaks have been many things. For instance, King Leopold II had a human zoo/circus in Belgium. Circus culture has always been controversial and toxic. The way they treat the attractions and animals has been talked about for years. The general public not seeing them as a human doesn’t contribute anything positive either.
Freaks is one of the earliest films about the circus. It’s about a little person named Hans (Harry Earles), who falls in love with an acrobat Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). To the other circus freaks Phroso (Wallace Ford), Venus (Leila Hyams), Frieda (Daisy Earles), etc. it’s a mystery why Cleopatra “loves” him back. After they find out why she wants to marry Hans and her plot, the freaks band together to foil her plan, and make her a FREAK.
Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon are the screenwriters, and the film is a little over an hour and has the perfect pacing. The plot is easy to follow and never misses a beat. The duo does a really good job laying the groundwork. Yes, it’s old, so the editing by Basil Wrangell is kind of choppy. Browning’s direction does this film wonders. He gets each character to stay in tune with who they are and helps navigate us through the film.
This cast is absolutely delightful. They have actual people from the circus in the film Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins), Olga Roderick (Bearded Lady), and many more. The film incorporates the actors with the circus acts very well. They did use what would be considered slurs now, but that is how most people thought of them. That is what makes the Cleopatra and Hercules (Henry Victor) characters work so well. Their total disregard for the feelings of the circus freaks. It creates the tension that carries the film. Especially in the wedding reception scene.
This film may be old, but it’s very interesting. The plot is fun and keeps you on your toes. The writers do a good job at making you hate the villain, and have no sympathy for how it all ends. The faults in this film are definitely the editing, and for me just how uncomfortable it made me feel at times. That may have been the point of the film though, and if it was, they definitely nailed it. I enjoyed it though, and it intrigued me enough that I may watch the remakes: 1967’s She Freak and 2007’s Freakshow. Oddly enough, it’s also the inspiration behind season 4 of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. Hopefully, you enjoyed this review and join us as we continue Screen Screams! – Rascal F. Kennedy
Freaks (1932) is available on HBO Max!