27 January 2012

Ally's Review: Freaks

If you take a look down the list of films we've watched over the years at Horror Club it's probably fair to say that there are some noticeable gaps on our list. One of the most glaring is the lack of pre-1970s films. Although we've watched (and enjoyed) some classic oldies, for the most part I think it's fair to say that we usually stick to more modern fare. With that in mind, I thought it was about time we watched a film that - if you're serious about horror - you have to get around to at some point, Freaks.

I've always been curious and wary of Freaks. It's one of those films that you see in classic movie lists and it looks a bit, well, freaky. I've also tended to see the date of the film (1932) and think that the chances of me connecting with it are pretty slim. To my surprise, I found it to be a film that's extremely easy to connect with, and one that packs a real emotional punch.

Freaks tells the story of performers in a travelling circus. Along with your classic clowns, strongmen, trapeze artists etc we are introduced to members of the Freak Show: the non-PC part of the circus from a bygone age. When we first see the 'freaks' laughing and playing, I immediately noticed myself feeling uncomfortable. I think like a lot of people, seeing people with major physical disabilities is not easy for me to deal with. I'm not entirely sure why it is, but I know it's a common reaction. We then see two able bodied men approach and one of them is appallingly cruel to them. We see their sensitivity and childlike qualities (many have severe learning disabilities too) and as an audience I think you feel a bit of guilt and shame for your original feelings. This opening scene very much sets the stage for the theme of the entire movie: how cruel and ignorant some 'normal' people are to those who are disabled (the film does show some 'normal' people with true compassion and kindness, in fairness).

The film itself tells the story of a dwarf, called Hans, who falls in love with Cleopatra, an able bodied performer. She plays on his affections, manipulating him to give her gifts, all the while making fun of him behind his back. Soon she finds out that he is astonishingly wealthy and she hatches a plot to marry him, with the intent of poisoning him so she can collect his money. But after the wedding, her plans are drunkenly found out by Hans and the other 'freaks' and revenge is plotted.

As the film moves to its final act, we as the audience are in no doubt about who is good and bad. We are disgusted with the treatment of Hans and others at the hands of the able bodied. If the intention for Tod Browning was to show the disabled as people with real feelings and emotions, who should be treated with sympathy and decency, then I think the film succeeds to an extent. However, the final act left me feeling a bit uncomfortable.


When the freaks take their revenge on Cleopatra it's a very uncomfortable watch. On the one hand, seeing deserved retribution is always quite a satisfying conclusion - and this particular revenge is very much out of the karmic tradition. Cleopatra deserves what she gets. However, the freaks change from being sympathetic humans to being the monsters they are ignorantly understood to be by the man in the opening sequence. The scene where they hunt down Cleopatra is disturbing, as we see them crawl in the mud towards her, but their humanity is lost. It's a strange message that Browning is giving the audience. Are we to think that they are monsters? The message that the 'freaks' should be treated with sympathy and decency has been hammered home, but what about equality? The horrific retribution, while in some ways justified for the purposes of a horror film, is truly disgusting and lessens the 'freaks' humanity. The final scene acts to absolve Hans of too much blame for the events, as if to say that it was the others who were the real monsters, but it feels a bit haphazard and disingenuous (not least because we see him chase her down with real gusto!)

Despite my reservations over how the events of the film unfolded, I was genuinely moved by this film. It's one of the most thought provoking pieces of cinema that I've seen, and to say that about a film made in the thirties is quite amazing. It's very easy to see why Freaks is still mentioned today as one of the most important movies of all time. It's a groundbreaking piece of cinema. Any film that has the power to make the audience look at their own responses to people who are different deserves to be given great credit. I'd be very interested to know what campaigners for disability rights make of the film, because there seems to be a lot to love and hate in that regard. As well as being moving, it's a short film that is pretty well paced and the acting is very good.

I think a good argument could be made that it's not actually a horror film, but regardless Freaks is a very memorable and enjoyable addition to our list of films.

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