In today’s politically correct society, a film like Freaks would never be made. Despite showing the titular characters not as monsters, but as people like this film did, it would have been very difficult to actually make a film like this. That’s why Freaks is a very special, unique film that has aged incredibly well and its lessons still carry over to this very day.
Freaks is billed as a horror, but quite honestly, it plays out more like a thrilling drama. Initially, the freaks are quite shocking to look at, but as the film goes on, they are shown in such soft-hearted humanity, the viewer looks beyond their physical deformity and sees them as the humans they are. However, in 1932, freakshows still very much existed throughout the world, and many people avoided the shows because of fear of deformity of abnormality, so a film dedicated to these people would have been terrifying for many people at that time. It is because of this fact that as a horror, Freaks is very tame. But as a social commentary, it remains one of the very best.
Freaks is certainly not perfect, and it has some serious flaws. First of all, it is only an hour long. There was a full 90-minute version that was destroyed, leaving us with the shorter, more succinct film that is only available today. An hour is not nearly enough time to allow viewers to enter the lives of these people – it concentrates so much on the trio of Cleopatra, Hercules and Hans, and very barely touches on the lives of the others in the circus. Schlitzie, who is one of the most fascinating people to ever live, played himself in this movie, and he has such charisma and likability, and his only extent of performing in this film were two lines. Johnny Eck, Prince Randian and Koo Koo were all so very endearing and interesting, but they were given almost nothing to do. The entire film centers on the love triangle and conspiracy of the three main characters, and I am sure the extended version delved into the lives of the other characters deeply, so I am very disappointed that we will likely never see the completed film.
The overriding message of this film is simple – a human is a human, regardless of appearance or abilities. It translates very much into other spheres of life today, with the liberal vs. conservative battles and the war over racism and bias. Tod Browning may have caused his career to become a disaster by making Freaks, but its ability to show these people who were exploited as freaks and monsters and portray them not only as regular people, but as intelligent, interesting characters, makes this one of the oddest but important films to ever been made.
Freaks isn’t for everybody – it can be quite unsettling, and the revenge plot is terrifying. However, it is a wonderfully sweet movie hiding under the guise of a disturbing horror, and if you give it a chance, you will find yourself becoming very attached to these characters and truly caring about them. A truly great film.