After scaring audiences out of their seats with his tale of a blood thirsty vampire in Dracula (1931) at Universal, director Tod Browning migrated to MGM for an even greater shock fest with Freaks (1932). The tale concerns a wealthy midget Hans (Harry Earles) who is smitten with trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).
Though advised against pursuing the affair by fellow midget, Frieda (Daisy Earles – Harry’s real life sister) who is actually in love with Hans herself, Hans plies the high wire diva with accolades to win her heart, unaware that he is the one being taken for a ride. Cleopatra accepts her pint size lothario and the two are married. But all is not as it seems. In fact, Cleopatra is plotting with her real lover, circus strong man, Hercules (Henry Victor) to poison Hans and steal his money.
Considered by many to be the most grotesque horror film ever made, the subject of this demented lover’s triangle was so controversial and disturbing (particularly with the growing cry for censorship) it was banned for more than thirty years in Great Britain. However, what Browning has actually created is a daring analytical piece – provoking his audience to question their own beliefs as to what constitutes normalcy. The ‘freaks’ may indeed represent oddities in the anatomy of human beings, but they are kind and without malice; contrasted against Cleopatra and Hercules – paragons of physicality, yet with warped intentions to do evil without remorse.
Amassing a cavalcade of real life circus performers for his film, Todd Browning effectively alienated the top brass at MGM and most of its stars – especially during lunch time in the commissary where a special table partitioned from the rest played host to the likes of Radian; the living torso, Frances O’Connor; the armless girl, Olga Roderick; the bearded lady, and other oddities in the cast.
Even today, the film’s climactic moment, in which the freaks extract their revenge upon Hercules and Cleopatra is quite palpably chilling. In 1994, the reputation of this classic finally warranted it being classified as a cinematic treasure with the National Film Registry – a fitting end to a film that miserably flopped upon its debut.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is very impressive. Minted from film elements which have obviously undergone restoration, this DVD exhibits a stunning gray scale with incredibly sharp images and a remarkable amount of fine detail. Though age related artifacts are riddled throughout and some softly focused scenes still exist, this is by far the most satisfying image quality. Blacks are solid and deep. Contrast levels are nicely balanced. There is an absence of digital anomalies for a nearly pristine and very smooth visual presentation that will surely not disappoint.
Aside: Freaks premiered with the final shot being that of Cleopatra’s hideous transformation into a sideshow attraction; the chicken woman. However, Browning originally intended there to be an epilogue in which Hans and Frieda are reunited. This footage was rediscovered in MGM’s vaults and oddly, has been reinstated into the actual film (rather than being included as an extra). This sequence is sourced from a less than stellar 16mm print and is extremely poorly contrasted, grainy and softly focused, making the ending of Freaks the singular let down on an otherwise impeccably rendered disc.
The audio has been cleaned up and is equally impressive. Extras include a thorough and engaging audio commentary by noted author, David J. Skal and an all new almost hour long documentary (which is heavy and meandering when tracing the lineage of the real life circus performers, but terribly short on documenting the production of the film itself). The film’s original prologue and three alternate endings conclude the extra features.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)