24 Lies a Second: The Nature of Freaks

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The Nature of Freaks

On last year's birthday my partner and I went out for a browse round the charity shops of a pleasant town in the Midlands: it's something I tend to do whenever I'm up there, more in hope than expectation, to be honest. However, on this occasion, no sooner did we walk through the doors of the British Heart Foundation than I came across a bin full of DVDs at 50p each (three for a quid). This would only have been notable if the DVDs were any good, but on this occasion they were: looking up at me from the top of the pile was the BFI's release of The Stone Tape, while not far beneath was A Clockwork Orange. With these two, I basically got a third free, and after a moment's pause went for – and it did feel very odd to come across this particular film in this particular setting – Tod Browning's 1932 movie Freaks. It was only when I got it home that I noticed that it was still in the original wrapper.

Now, of course there are many reasons why a film might get bought and never watched – back in my youth I was a sucker for picking up VHS tapes that I thought I might like to watch one day and then never getting back to them – but when it comes to a film like Freaks, you can't help but wonder. Did the purchaser look at the blurb on the back of the case, and have second thoughts? Did they do some research into the movie and then decide against watching it, or even having it in the house? One will never know. Certainly this remains one of the most problematic and genuinely difficult-to-watch films I have ever come across.

Technically a horror movie, it takes place in and around a travelling circus, somewhere in France (it seems to have been a convention of very early horror films that they should be set in the Old World), and most of the first half of the film concerns the everyday lives of the performers. This includes – and here things start to get tricky – the acts in what one would glibly call the freak show. There is a 'human skeleton', a bearded lady, a hermaphrodite, conjoined twins, people missing various limbs, a group of 'pinheads', and some midgets. All of them are played by people who genuinely possessed these conditions. We see them going about their daily routines and interacting with the other performers, and the result is a kind of very odd soap opera: the bearded lady has a child, the conjoined twins are contemplating marriage – to two different men – and, most significantly, one of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles), has developed an infatuation for the circus' statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), much to the anguish of Hans' fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles).

However, what Hans does not realise is that he is being played for a sucker by Cleopatra and her actual lover, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor). The pair have become aware that Hans has inherited a fortune and are planning that Cleopatra will marry and then slowly poison him. What can possibly go wrong? He's only a midget, after all. Of course, they have reckoned without the unwritten law of the sideshow freaks, which is that they look out for each other, and an attack on one is considered an offence against all of them…

If nothing else, Freaks is a bracing (to say the least) antidote to the mawkish sentimentality with which circuses of yesteryear tend to be depicted in modern movies – in its own way, I find The Greatest Showman to be every bit as problematic and gruelling to watch as Freaks, but the much older movie is, I suspect, rather closer to reality. I say that Freaks is technically a horror movie, because – as you can perhaps tell from the brief outline I have provided – the actual plot is much more of a melodrama. Only in the closing stages of the film do things take a different turn.

Prior to this, if there is 'horror', it comes from the presence in the film of people with genuine abnormalities. Obviously, there is something very off about this in principle: the film seems to be operating as a kind of circus sideshow itself, with the chance to see the 'freaks' the main draw to the audience. However, there is a weird tension operating here – there are a number of quite lurid and even prurient moments, such as when the camera dwells on one of the twins being kissed and the other enjoying the sensation as well, but the general tone of the film is much more matter-of-fact and even compassionate towards its subjects.

However, come the end of the story, there is inevitably a shift. Cleopatra and Hercules' plot is uncovered, and as a thunderstorm lashes the circus wagons, the freaks close in to exact vengeance on the attempted murderers. There is something genuinely chilling about this, even in the extant, savagely truncated version of the film: the original climax apparently caused a furore when it was shown to audiences, resulting in the film being cut by nearly a third. As it is, the end of the film does feel abrupt and anticlimactic – we don't see exactly how Cleopatra goes from being a beautiful amazon to the quacking, legless, bird-like thing she has been transformed to in the frame story, and the suggestion that the freaks have emasculated Hercules is completely absent. An epilogue intended to ensure Hans remains a sympathetic character has also been added.

This is a film from the 1930s, pretty much the dawn of cinema, and as such it inevitably feels a bit primitive by modern standards – the characterisations are broad, the plot basic, and so on. It does suffer from some pacing issues, too, probably because of the recutting the film underwent – most of the incident happens in the last quarter, giving the uneasy impression that for most of the film we're just being invited to gawp. One significant problem is that – for obvious reasons – many parts are played by people who were not professional actors, resulting in some slightly wince-worthy performances. Even worse, not all of them had English as a first language – Harry Earles' birth name was Kurt Schneider, and his thick German accent renders some of his dialogue unintelligible, which is obviously an issue given he's playing one of the main characters.

Is Freaks genuinely a horror movie? I would like to think not. Perhaps it is one of those films from so long ago that it is a losing game to try and assess it by modern standards. There are certainly some chilling and powerful moments, but every frame of it radiates an awkward ambiguity, about just how we are expected to respond to the characters. One thing is certain: a film like this could never be made today, and perhaps that's just as well.

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