Back to 1932 and back to Tod Browning, which means that we're likely to meet outcasts, The Other, persons who can't get jobs at the Apple Store. The fact that this is titled FREAKS is also a pretty big clue. "A soap opera in a sideshow", as the feature aptly puts it, FREAKS concerns dwarf Hans (Harry Earles), who is seduced by normal-sized trapeze hussy Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) into ditching his dwarf fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles). Cleo's a black-hearted gold digger who is really in a tryst with douchebag strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and is only chasing Hans for his money. Eventually, the predatory nature of her advances get outed and the freaks at the sideshow take a grim revenge.
Ambiguity abounds in the early goings. You can't get a grip on FREAKS and pin it down as any sort of horror film. Like its titular stars, it defies easy categorization. We jump right into the Hans/Skankopatra business, but there's also sparks flying between Phroso the clown and Hercules's former girlfriend, Venus. FREAKS has an awful lot of twinning on all levels—it even extends to inter-scene happenings, like when Phroso's wiping off his makeup and Venus is wiping off her tears.
FREAKS is a film about relationships. It's also about how scummy carnival life can be, even though the scummiest scum might not be who you'd expect. There are plenty of pre-code films that play coy with their penetration talk, but FREAKS is not coy. When Cleo whips open her robe and asks Hercules, "How do you like them?", only the most naive censor could think she was referencing the eggs cooking behind her.
Cleo and Hercules are united by greed and their shared horribleness, but they're well contrasted by the more wholesome pairing of Phroso/Venus and also by the genuine affection which the freaks have for one another. Browning gives us little snippets of conversation and tiny, playful scenes that really establish what a real community the sideshow folks have.
Even if this were a failure of a story, it would be noteworthy for including so many sideshow stars. FREAKS functions like the movie version of a ten-in-one, letting us see famed names like Johnny Eck the Half-Boy and Prince Randian.
My favorites, Daisy & Violet Hilton, show up and get a generous amount of subplot time with lots of kissing and sensual touching. Maybe the film's most famous scene involves Violet making out with a dude while her conjoined sister Daisy shows the effects of the kiss on her face. The censors apparently were hopping mad.
Like a lot of the films that it presumably influenced, FREAKS really picks up steam during a grotesque dinner scene. To celebrate Hans's marriage to Cleo, the freaks mount a feast. After they start singing, "We accept you, we accept you, one of us, one of us!" and offer a ceremonial loving cup, a drunken Cleo flips her shit and lets loose a torrent of hatespeech. This is the turning point of the film, when all the light exchanges and comedy of the early scenes get swapped out for pure vengeance and mutilation.
The last scenes wend their way to dark-as-fuck corners. Things get very intense and Browning is masterful at cutting between settings during the climax, never letting the viewer's suspense wane. The previously-cuddly freaks get painted in a new light, as it's time to whip out the switchblades and take care of business.
There was some tampering with the ending to make the film a little easier to swallow. You can hear all about it in the featurette on the DVD and it certainly sounds like the original, less tidy ending would have been stronger. As it stands, we get a resolution that's a little too neat and reassuring to mesh with the grim tone of the preceding scenes.
I've barely talked about any of the usual review stuff, so let's do it now. The acting is generally solid, especially leads Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, and Leila Hyams. The actual sideshow freaks in the cast do a pretty commendable job! I'm sure Browning was extra-careful to make them look menacing when necessary, but they're pretty fun during the more carefree early scenes, too. I'm not that fond of Daisy Earles in the early goings, but she seems to get better with line delivery and such as the film proceeds. The carnival setting is loads of fun and never looks (unintentionally) cheap or shoddy. And, as stated, Browning is awesome at editing and cobbling scenes together here. It all makes FREAKS a (perhaps) surprisingly easy watch. Like Gordon Gecko said in WALL STREET, "FREAKS is good!"