Saturday, December 5, 2015

Freaks (1932)

Freaks: written by Tod Robbins; directed by Tod Browning; starring Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), and Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini) (1932): You really don't watch Freaks for the acting or the writing or that static, early sound-era direction. You watch it because the disabilities and deformities are real, because the story has the crude power of a fable, and because Tod Browning does manage a couple of effective scenes in the dark and the rain, when he's able to stage something that doesn't require camera movement.

So far as I can tell, the longest restored version runs 64 minutes, lacking about 20 minutes of lost footage that were cut from the film after its first couple of weeks of release. The lost footage apparently deepened the horror while also making the 'Freaks' of the travelling carnival more sympathetic and the 'normal' people much less so. What's left is still stunning, and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of the carnival grotesques who are simply trying to make a living in a world where the best they can hope for is life as a sideshow attraction.

Besides the unnerving night-time attack scene and the late-movie revelation of what revenge the carnival folk took on the homicidal trapeze artist, other scenes also achieve a sort of Grimm's pastoral. A scene involving 'pinheads' and their protector playing in the woods near the village they're visiting has a grace to it, and a grace note of kindness involving one of the townspeople's treatment of the frolickers. 

Only a coda added to the movie after its bowdlerization rings absolutely false. The rest is crude and powerful and impossible to imagine being made today. The horror of the movie begins as a contemplation of distortions of the human form and ends as a classic tale of horrific revenge in the manner of EC Comics or Poe's "Hop-Frog." The viewer's identification moves inexorably towards that of the 'Freaks,' and away from those who would harm or kill or even just mock them. Highly recommended.

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