Nik Glover on the fine line between horror and tragedy tread by Tod Browning with his film, Freaks…
In his 1932, pre-code ‘horror’ Freaks, Tod Browning made the then shocking decision to cast people with real physical deformities as his stars, contrasting the perceived inhumanity of the beautiful, gold-digging villain Cleopatra with the supportive, loving family of deformed circus performers who band together to defend wronged midget Hans, taking a grotesque revenge on her and her strongman lover.
The film was marketed as the latest in a long, money-making run of horror films (including Dracula, Island of Lost Souls and Frankenstein) to portray the macabre onscreen, rather than the simple morality tale it in fact was. Lumping it in with monster flicks runs the risk of undermining an otherwise powerful comment on the exploitation of minorities, rampant in the Western world around the turn of the century.
A world bruised and bloodied from a recent World War, and in many places driven to desperation by the Wall Street Crash, took its pleasures where it could find them. A slew of films focusing on the outsider or anti-hero appeared, including King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933) and the bitter and influential All Quiet On The Western Front (1930). Societies norms were subverted, either through the riotous comedy of the Marx Brothers in A Day At The Races (1937) and Duck Soup (1933), or the more staid Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). The same dissenters and revolutionaries would face imprisonment and liquidation under the Third Reich, and suffer the effects of the establishment’s fightback during the McCarthy witch-hunts.
Keeping a balanced tone for such a bizarre and visceral movie must have been incredibly challenging; today, calling Freaks a horror film feels like doing its stars a disservice. The shocking original ending (which involved castration and other mutilation, and was cut following test screenings) has been lost, leaving the film at just over an hour long. What Browning achieved was not immediately recognised, the film effectively ending his career despite the classic status awarded to his previous directorial effort, 1931’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. For a long time, the film like its protagonists, was seriously misunderstood.
Freaks is no more a traditional horror film than The Shining is a film about hotel getaways. Though fairly broadstroke in depicting the ‘normals’ as cruel and avaricious, and the ‘freaks’ as innocent and kind, Browning is attentive to the importance of not allowing his moral message to come across too plainly. The transformation of the Freaks from familial (if slightly creepy) kindness as they welcome the devious Cleopatra into their community during a costumed banquet (“Gobble-gobble… One of us, One of us”), to mud-splattered avenging angels, is one of the great examples of cinematic about-face, and poses fiendishly difficult moral questions.
The universality of Freaks can perhaps be overstated. It is tempting to read the film as a morally justifiable revenge flick, because the ‘heroes’ are easier to root for than those of Deathwish or Straw Dogs, released during a wave of reactionary vigilantism on screen in the 1970’s. Taking the side of violence is more tempting when it is the minority carrying it out – the moral argument however, does not stand up.
It is impossible for us, with the saturation of horrific images on television, to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience who might have seen Freaks upon its intended release. We can see real-life body-horror whenever we want to, be it on phone-in advice shows like Embarrassing Bodies (Channel 4) or fat-sploitation docs like Big Body Squad (5*), wherein engineers arrive at one corpulent lady’s home to hoist her out of the building, and to a new life in a nursing home. It is tempting to watch Freaks as a sideshow in itself, a curio from a time when film-makers more often than not sought to reinforce the status-quo, and when a film with such a troubling theme could not possibly pass the censors.
But Freaks is very much a film of its time, even if, in its execution it was ahead of graphic sensibilities. Browning had already expressed a fascination with the psychological impact of deformity, and in particular the after-effects of amputation in The Penalty (1920), The Show (1927) and The Unknown (1927). He seems to have been obsessed with circus performers (he ran away from home at 16 to join a travelling sideshow), directing a string of films that posited characters on the edges of normal society clashing with cultural and social convention, and questioning the effects of physical deformity on personal development.
In Freaks he tries to combine these sensibilities with a horrific climax that makes us question the whole conceit of the film. If Browning wants us to see the freaks in a positive light, why does he allow them such a vicious revenge? Is he empowering the powerless, or turning a moral trick in a film so deeply imprinted with his own love of celebrating the ‘other’?
Perhaps the argument is more clean-cut that it appears. If the freaks are at heart just like ‘everybody else’, they too have it in them to perpetrate monstrous acts. Whether we back them in their endeavour or not is our own business. What is lightest and darkest in us all, never appears in its true form without burrowing deeply below the surface.