The 1932 exploitation horror Freaks has always had a reputation for controversy, even losing a third of its original runtime to drastic edits meant to soften its abrasive effect. After the wild success of the Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula for Universal, director Tod Browning was given total freedom to jumpstart MGM’s own horror brand in a project of his choice. Urged by little person performer (and future member of The Lollipop Guild) Harry Earles to adapt the Tod Robbins short story “Spurs” for the screen, Browning chose to draw on his own past as a circus performer for a film that ultimately ruined his career. As a historic, pre-Code horror relic, Freaks has a fascinating cultural cache that only improves every passing year. It’s a film that’s just divisive now as it was over eight decades ago, however, largely because it’s divided in its own dual nature. Freaks is both a deeply empathetic call to arms against the social stigmas that surround its disabled “circus freak” performers and a horrifically exploitative “Get a load of these monsters!” sideshow that defeats its own point. Which side of these warring, self-contradicting intents ultimately overpowers the other is a question largely of genre, for which horror might not have been Browning’s wisest option.
As David Lynch later proved with The Elephant Man, it’s entirely possible to tell a heartfelt, empathetic story about real life sideshow performers through a Universal Monsters aesthetic. In the younger, less nimble days of horror cinema, Browning was a lot less confident about the technique. The majority of Freaks is not a horror film at all, but rather a comedic melodrama that happens to be set in the insular community of a traveling circus. With the campy, braying line deliveries of a John Waters production, the little people, conjoined twins, amputees, and microcephalics of Browning’s cast pal around in what’s essentially a hangout comedy. In a typical joke, two men remark on the intersex performer Josephine Joseph, “Don’t get her sore or he’ll punch you in the face,” and then maniacally laugh as if it’s the funniest thing that’s ever been said. An opening scroll & a carnival barker preface this comedy with a plea for the audience to empathize with its “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs, stressing that they are only human beings whose “lot is truly a heartbreaking one.” As we watch the titular “freaks” live, laugh, and love in the film’s first act, the only detectable trace of horror is in the way they’re treated by able-bodied outsiders. Harry Earles falls for an erotic dancer who plans to marry & poison him in a plot to rob him of his inheritance. She & her strongman secret lover are grotesquely cruel to their “circus freak” co-workers, whom they openly mock for their disabilities. The comedic melodrama of the film’s opening concludes with the two wicked souls making out in front of Earles & laughing in his face on their wedding night. When hiws fello circus performers famously chant, “One of us! One of us! We accept her!” to welcome the new bride into the fold, she shrieks “Freaks!” in their faces and violently rejects the offer, campily revealing who the True Monsters are.
The self-contradiction at the core of Freaks kicks in immediately after that wedding celebration. The film shifts focus from the horrors of social cruelty to the supposed horrors of its disabled cast as they exact revenge on the erotic dancer who is gradually poisoning their “circus freak” brethren. Although Browning’s script makes a point to stress the humanity of his characters in the film’s opening half, he leans in heavily on the exploitation of their physical appearances as “living monstrosities” in the film’s final act. What was once an unconventional hangout comedy with a tragic mean streak reverts to the Universal Monsters model of Browning’s roots, reducing the “freaks” to silent, wordless monsters who stalk their erotic dancer prey from the shadows until it’s time to maim. In a mood-setting rainstorm, the circus performers crawl towards her with knives wedged in their teeth, all of their pre-established humanity now replaced with the supposedly grotesque image they strike as onscreen monsters. It’s arguable that without this conclusion Freaks would not technically qualify as a horror film, but by backsliding into the exploitative nature of horror as a genre, the movie effectively undoes a lot of its argument for empathy. Essentially, if the story Browning truly wanted to tell was that the performers were ordinary people who happened to have abnormal bodies, he should not have told that story through a genre that requires them to be visually shocking monsters.
As a visual achievement, a cultural time capsule, and a one of a kind novelty, Freaks has more than earned its place in the Important Cinema canon, if not only for inspiring the masterful The Elephant Man to accentuate its virtues & undo its faults. As a horror genre entertainment, however, it’s too self-defeating to qualify as a creative success. Browning asks his audience to think twice about treating his disabled circus performers like inhuman monstrosities and then marches them through genre conventions that require them to be exactly that. You could generously argue that societal cruelty & bigotry is what leads the film’s disabled characters to inhuman violence at the climax, but the film concluding on that violence for exploitative effect is too much of a self-contradiction to brush off entirely. Freaks‘s most effective mode of horror is in presenting a moral discomfort in the disconnect between its words & its actions, especially as its story gradually shifts genres while it reaches for an inevitably tragic conclusion.