Freaks is probably the quintessential Pre-code horror film. Such a movie could never be made today, unless make-up effects were used in place of real-life people with deformities. Even cut back to 64 minutes from 90 or so, the film was too intense for post-code Hollywood. The fascination with the daily lives of people with deformities mirrors the period's fascination with the prostitute film. Browning had been a circus performer and was able to present the tale that was still horrifying and yet showed the "freaks" mostly sympathetically. During the Depression self- exploitation film, be it exploitation of circus performers or prostitutes, was considered more justifiable. People have to make a living and studios certainly didn't mind profiting from the fact that people wanted to see exploitation movies. MGM tasked Browning with giving them something unique that would compete with Univerisal's tremendously profitable horror franchises. While Freaks was certainly unique, it wasn't profitable. The film was just too strange and the studio backed away from casting major stars or doing much publicity for it. It was more or less forgotten until the 1970s when it was revived and appreciated for the first time..
A great deal of plot actually revolves around the so-called "normals" in the circus the good couple, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phrenso (Wallace Ford) and the bad couple Cleo (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor). There is a third couple, little people, Hans and Freida (played by brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles), who become involved making Freaks a six-sided love polygon. Cleo who is having an affair with Hercules, marries Hans for his inheritance. At the wedding banquet, the freaks, generously, but perhaps optimistically move to accept Cleo into their group by chanting "one of us" and drinking from a huge goblet. Cleo flips out and offends them. After that they are suspicious and soon figure out her plan to murder Hans and steal his money.
The side-show performers and their routines are strung onto this relatively straight-forward skeleton of a plot. Many of the cuts came from these areas of the film, which may have detracted focus from the central story. These are parts of the film that are the most compulsively watchable. While the love drama wears out quite quickly, it is impossible to be bored while a guy (Prince Randian) with no arms and legs smokes a cigarette. Also, after watching Freaks, I really want an old-school circus house wagon. They are awesome.
The ending of Freaks is where it changes into a true horror movie. I think that cut back as it is, the ending is a bit confusing. I thought that Cleo was changed into the chicken woman through some sort of magic since none of her mutilation is shown. Apparently there were intensely brutal scenes of Cleo and Hercules being attacked with knives. Hercules is castrated and Cleo winds up loosing her legs, an eye and use of her voice. The studio insisted that a happy ending be filmed that resolves the relationship between Freida and Hans and has a carnival barker explaining about Cleo's transformation into the human chicken. Part of me is glad that those scenes were lost to posterity, even though the integrity of the film was compromised by the "softer" ending. It is a lot easier to sympathize with the freaks if you don't have to watch them mutilate people.
Note: Well it turns out having a three year old during Halloween week is not the optimal situation for maintaining a blog about pre-code horror movies. Between parties, costume contests, pumpkin carving contests and actual trick or treating, I'm not getting a whole lot of spare time to flap my gums about pre-code horror. I have a backlog of movies I didn't get to. I may just extend Halloween week through the 7th of November. Yeah, that makes sense!
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