Freaks is definitely not a horror film in the traditional sense -- yet, it's appealed to horror fans for decades, reaching the rare summit into the realm of "legend". Banned in Britain for over 30 years and said to cause miscarriages and heart failure among audience members during its original theatrical run in 1932, the cult classic Freaks is one of those movies that will always pack a visceral punch. Tod Browning, who directed the original Dracula, overstepped the bounds of what is horror when he hired real-life "freaks" to round out the cast in this dramatic story of jealously, betrayal and murder in the circus.
When the beautiful but evil trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) seduces the soon-to-be rich circus midget Hans (Harry Earles) away from his fiancee Frida (Daisy Earles), a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions unfolds. We eventually learn that Cleopatra is far uglier than the so-called freaks she loathes -- As Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) says, "These are all God's children" -- and she gets her just desserts in a rather shocking finale.
Browning brought in some of the most famous sideshow attractions of the era to star in his film, including Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (the other "Hilton Sisters"), Johnny Eck the Half Boy, Zip and Pip the Pinheads (P.C. term: "microcephalics"), an armless woman (Frances O'Connor), a bearded lady (Olga Roderick), a living skeleton (Peter Robinson), and even a human caterpillar (Prince Radian). Thanks to modern advances in medicine and nutrition, we hardly ever see these anomalies anymore -- despite the wonders of special effects and CGI, there is really nothing that can create an illusion for such profound deformities. Still, the filmmakers took pains to portray the so-called freaks as the "normal" people and they come off with their dignity intact.
Some film historians declare Freaks as being a "better Tod Browning film than Dracula". I don't. Still, I feel it's worth a look for anyone who is interested in classic films, especially those that have a certain reputation.
As far as I'm concerned, the extras on the DVD are the most rewarding aspect of the viewing experience. Horror film expert David Skal does the over-the-movie commentary being informative, interesting, and entertaining at the same time. However, the commentary is basically a rehash of the fascinating one hour documentary, "Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema". Discussing the film from every conceivable angle are Skal, sideshow historians Todd Robbins & Johnny Meah, Wizard of Oz actor Jerry Maren, and authentic bearded lady Jennifer Miller. They offer some intriguing insights, covering the story from the original novel Freaks was based on (Spurs, by Clarence Robbins) to the perception of sideshow performers working today. Every actor and player is discussed and featured in detail, illuminating and certainly humanizing those afflicted performers. There is also an "Alternate Endings" segment in which Skal outlines the (presumably lost) even more unhappy original climax, and shows us clips of how the ending was variously cut and re-cut when shown in theaters.
Review by Staci Layne Wilson for Horror.com