★★★★ | Freaks (1932) Cinema Re-release

Hollywood Classics presents a cinema release of “Freaks” – in cinemas from 12th June 2015

This classic opens with a sideshow barker shouting about his latest addition, without showing it immediately builds some tension, as you want to see this freak. The audience around the cage gasps and screams and so sets the scene for that back-story, the story of how the freak came into being.

A beautiful circus trapeze artist, Cleopatra, takes an interest in Hans, a dwarf who works in the circus sideshow away from the main ring. She has ulterior motives though as her interest is more about Hans and his inheritance than in Hans himself. Hans has his head turned by this beauty, and forgoes his loving finance to pursue this highflying love.

What he isn’t immediately aware of is that she is carrying on an affair with Hercules, the circus strongman. At their wedding party, a drunken Cleopatra tells the sideshow freaks just what she thinks of them – huge mistake and this group of friends close ranks and plot. Together, the freaks decide to make her one of their own.

Tod Browning, the director and producer, drew on his own experiences in the fairgrounds and circuses of America to create this once shocking film. He was given leeway by the studio system to create this horror after his success in creating Dracula. He intentionally showed the “freaks” to be the ones with a code of honour and a sense of justice and the so-called normal cast as the ones with murderous intentions.

Tod also managed to interweave sub-plots that built on the “freaks” having normal lives, such as the co-joined twins who each have romances, the armless wonder who performs everyday tasks with her feet – remember folks, in 1932, these were shocking images, things never before seen, hence their place amongst the circus sideshows.

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It seems impossible to believe now, but after test screenings in New York, the film was pulled after one lady threatened a lawsuit – claiming the film had been so shocking, she had suffered a miscarriage! The film was butchered and reduced from its original 90 minutes to just over 60, with some of the more shocking scenes removed. There were extended images of the freaks attacking Cleopatra and the scene where Hercules, her lover, is castrated was also removed.

The initial barker scene was added to give it some context, but despite this and the other cuts, it lost money on it’s second release and despite Brownings earlier work with Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi, his career was effectively over – Hollywood doesn’t forgive or forget easily!

The film was considered overly exploitative over here and was banned in the UK for over 30 years but even with mainly negative reviews, some saw this as a masterpiece, a true gem of film-making with even the Rotten tomatoes site giving it an overall thumbs up, stating that time has been kind to this film and the US National Film Registry adding it to its archives as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

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It isn’t easy to watch, in this age of PC conformity, you do question its making, it’s potential to exploit – but if you can, put that to one side and consider it in it’s historic context.
Take a peek if you can, in its intended surroundings – aim for a real cinema with Rococo fittings and real organ music. Failing that, go see it at your local multiplex, but DO GO SEE IT.

A huge 4 stars – not as scary as it once was, but excellent historical perspective and amazing cast

About the author: Chris Jones
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