Loosely based on the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins and directed by the same mind that brought the definitive Dracula to the screen, Freaks is a film that blurs the lines between fiction and reality, drama and comedy, and horror and exploitation. This “alarming yet profound movie” is a difficult movie to classify as it seems to run a wide spectrum of achievements and genres in its sixty-two minutes (Schneider). It is an amazingly beautiful film, underappreciated because of sheer stomach-turning concerns for the performers, but still seems to hold some amazing messages about community and relationships in a very pre-Tarentino Tarentino way…Or a David Lynch way… It is Tarentino mixed with Lynch with a little dash of Paul Reubens’ camp mixed in. Original and strange, Freaks is a film that holds a special place in my cinematic experience as I can truly say afterward that I had certainly never seen anything like it before. But I loved it. The version of the film I watched came with some really excellent special features, including a well-researched documentary that offered a biography of all of the performers in the film and convinced me that, even though it is very much an exploitation film, surprisingly everyone except the bearded lady seemed to enthusiastically enjoy their time and experience on set.
Freaks is a very troubling sixty-two minutes that devolves into a horrific denouement of violence and terror, and perhaps the most shocking and incredible part of this film is the fact that there is a strange balance between the lens that I am seeing it in 2016 and the cultural and historical lens through which the original audiences viewed it in 1932 – and I personally think both seem to work. We have made a great deal of progress in terms of acceptable entertainment, the equal rights in terms of both taste and cognitive expectations of those with disabilities, and what we consider to be tasteful. In Freaks, we see a film that was once likely intended to be a horror film of nightmarish revenge, and today could easily hold its ground against any Tarentino underdog revenge flick.
I thought this film was incredibly interesting. I was really worried about the troubling implications of this film. It is literally built on the premise that these characters, with little effect on what today would include many calls for boycott that the ADA and any number of other organizations would rightfully raise, have some inherent difference between themselves and normal people. Historical exploitation aside, they are the strongest characters, the most ethical, and the ones who make mistakes and need to atone for them. The regularly-abled characters aside from the clown are monsters.
So who suffers? At the beginning of the film the director suggests that it is the audience who is allowed to laugh and criticize the “freaks” because of what was likely socially acceptable at the time (heck, there is even a frame story that culturally sets the scene for us), but by the end we’ve seen these unlikely characters humanized by observing their human struggles on the micro level that easily transposes to us on the macro level. Questions about infidelity, honesty, violence, acceptance, and pain as a result of these mistakes are all raised in the lives (no pun intended) of the small but beautifully interconnected community of this travelling circus are raised and followed to their end, and in a way that feels incredibly cathartic for those rooting for the people in this small community of genuinely beautiful souls.
Did the writer and director – whose career was famously ruined for this film – intend for some overtly progressive cultural commentary on community and the humanity of “freaks?” A genius irony that presents the traditionally objectified in a new context of a community with passions, fears, desires, and best of all, revenge for screwing with them? Perhaps we’ll never know – but it might offer a clear message to the audiences of 1932 that the film was banned in Great Britain for the next thirty years. I will say this – there’s nothing more empowering and satisfying than to watch Prince Randian stalk his villainous prey in the rain with a knife in his teeth at the end of the film, and it was quite a feeling when the desire for justice and bloodthirst welled in my throat and the action in the final ten minutes devolved into a soaked frenzy.