| These days it's probably pretty hard to find anyone offended by Tod Browning's Freaks, which was in its day perhaps the most offensive of all films.
Because of this, it's likely that the film's defenders have since gone overboard in the opposite direction by over-praising the film. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that Freaks deserves its masterpiece status based on its own merits.
We know that director Tod Browning, like so many directors after him, was obsessed with horror, deformity and the supernatural. During the silent era, he made many great films with Lon Chaney, a brilliant actor who constantly re-invented himself with gruesome makeup and physical abnormalities. In their greatest film together, The Unknown, Chaney plays a circus performer who cuts off his arms to impress a girl.
It was only natural that Browning should be hired for the feature film of Dracula (1931), which Chaney might have starred in at one point. Based on the huge success of that film, Browning was in a position to do almost anything in 1932.
And so came Freaks, the story of a circus romance that featured real "freaks," a fact that still amazes viewers today. A midget, Hans (Harry Earles), who is already betrothed to a woman his own size, falls in love with the full-sized trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra is in turn having an affair with the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Even so, Cleopatra learns that Hans is wealthy and attempts to bilk him for all that he's worth, even going to the point of marrying him and attempting to poison him.
Before the unholy marriage, the "freaks" throw a dinner for Hans and Cleopatra, accepting her as "one of us," and performing a little chant that causes Cleo to recoil in horror. When the "freaks" learn of her true plot, they exact a brutal and horrifying revenge.
The plot is really secondary to the allure of seeing the "freaks" in all their glory. We have the Siamese Twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who are each betrothed to different men), Randian the human torso (who lights a cigar all by himself), Johnny Eck, the "half-boy" and of course the "pinheads," immortalized in song by the Ramones.
Browning attempts to paint the "freaks" as human beings with hearts and feelings; he even gives us a couple of sympathetic "normal" people (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams) who treat the "freaks" as equals. He also alludes to their sexual longings through several carefully-placed jokes and innuendos. Even the ending, which has the "freaks" slithering through a rainstorm toward the treacherous full-sized villains, brings with it a feeling of humanity, anger and revenge. The audience winds up siding with the "freaks" against the full-sized bad guys.
Two years before the Hays Code came into full power in 1934, Freaks was still treated with kid gloves. It was re-written and revised over and over to soften anything potentially offensive. It was released under several titles, Forbidden Love, The Monster Show and Nature's Mistakes, each aiming for different audiences. It has several endings, all of which are presented in this definitive DVD edition. The original ending is meant to shock, and it's still there, but it's smoothed out by a compassionate epilogue.
The most amazing thing about Freaks is that it was commissioned by MGM, the most high-class of all studios, notable for their opulent musicals. Company president Irving Thalberg was merely trying to jump on the horror movie bandwagon started by Dracula and Frankenstein, but wound up opening a can of worms that no one knew what to do with. (Stories abound of the "freaks" lunching in the MGM commissary, causing friction among the studio's biggest stars.)
Freaks has been written about more than it has actually been watched, but it lives up to the hype. It's a truly amazing film, not so much horrific as it is funny, touching and extraordinary; you'd be hard-pressed to find another film like it.
DVD Details: Warner Home Video (which owns most of MGM's back catalog) has released Freaks on a must-have new DVD, complete with a new commentary by Browning biographer David J. Skal. Skal makes use of his time by helping to point out just what changes the film went through during its production and underlining some of the most "controversial" moments. The DVD also comes with a full-length documentary that runs longer than the 62-minute film, as well as a featurette on the various endings and the "special message prologue" added to the theatrical reissue. Optional subtitles include English (helpful for some of the actors' thick accents), French and Spanish.
In addition to Freaks, Warner Home Video has also released four decidedly lesser horror films.
Bette Davis stars as twins in Dead Ringer (1964), an overly-long "thriller" directed with little flair by actor Paul Henreid (who starred with Davis in Now, Voyager and is perhaps best known for his role as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The poor evil twin kills the rich twin and takes her place, but lover/detective Karl Malden suspects something is up. After the huge success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, Davis became a horror star in her mid-50s, playing bitchy misfits for the rest of her career. The disc comes with a commentary track, featurettes and a trailer.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, The Bad Seed (1956) was one of Hollywood's attempts to inflate a genre film by slowing it down and taking out any offending elements to make it palatable to the mainstream, and indeed, it was a hit and earned an Oscar nomination for its young star Patty McCormack. She plays the title character, a blond child with pigtails who is apparently pure evil. By no stretch of the imagination does this thing need to run 129 minutes, though. The new disc comes with a featurette, a trailer and a commentary track. McCormack returned years later for a kind of unofficial sequel, Mommy (1995).
In Village of the Damned (1960), the entire town of Midwich suddenly goes to sleep and the women wake up pregnant. They all give birth to a bunch of creepy, blonde, hyper-intelligent children who may want to take over the world (a bit of a Nazi allegory). Even at 77 minutes the film drags a bit and relies too much on talk. I may be the only person on the planet who prefers John Carpenter's 1995 remake. George Sanders stars, lending a bit of class to the proceedings, and Oscar-winner Stirling Siliphant (In the Heat of the Night) co-wrote the screenplay. The disc comes with the 1963 sequel Children of the Damned, plus a featurette and a commentary track.