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Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror, published September 25th, 2009, is also available.
"Gooble-gobble…we accept her…one of us."
In 1932, studio executive Irving Thalberg requested that director Tod Browning, hot off the success of Universal's horror classic Dracula, make something even more terrifying than his previous picture. The story goes that when Thalberg received the screenplay for Freaks, he held his head in his hands and muttered, "Well, I wanted something horrible, and that's what I got." Banned for decades in various countries and scorned upon its initial release in 1932, Tod Browning's classic film of weirdness, Freaks, finally arrives on DVD care of Warner Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
An overseas traveling sideshow finds itself seeped with soap opera-like drama when an attractive trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), and her strongman lover (Henry Victor) conspire to marry, poison, and steal the money of one of the sideshow midgets, Hans (Harry Earles). This doesn't sit well with Hans's girlfriend, Frieda (Daisy Earles, also Harry's real-life sister), and the rest of the sideshow attractions who know Cleopatra makes fun of Hans behind his back…and often in front of him. Two "normal" performers—a clown (Wallace Ford) and the lovely Venus (Leila Hyams)—traverse a subplot involving unrequited love while the freaks keep a watchful eye on Cleopatra. During the wedding banquet (one of the film's most famous scenes), Cleopatra is initiated into the freaks clan with the now legendary chant "Gooble-gobble…we accept her…one of us, one of us!" Cleopatra wigs out and flees from the scene, only to find that when one freak intones "offend one, offend us all," the consequences will be disastrous.
There'll never be another movie like Tod Browning's amazing, horrifying, and altogether bizarre Freaks. It's a film that couldn't be produced today, even if they tried; hypothetically, it would be filled with CGI and Stan Winston's make-up effects. It is without a doubt a classic, and one of the most entertaining ones at that. I couldn't take my eyes off of Freaks. Not for one moment. The film is a marvel of weirdness and oddity, a whirlwind of every definition that could possibly be printed under the word "strange."
It's interesting to note that Freaks was banned, lambasted, and snubbed upon its initial release. You have to wonder: what was so horrible about this movie? Groups attacked the film for its apparent depravity, nearly citing it as the downfall of western civilization as we know it. MGM removed its trademark from all of the prints in an attempt to disown the bastard child nobody seemed to love. It would be decades before the film finally found its rightful audience in the counterculture of the 1960s. Since then, Freaks has gone from misunderstood monster movie to socially relevant cinema.
When the film was originally released in 1932, movie patrons looked upon it with disgust. What those watching didn't realize—or maybe couldn't realize—is that Browning's "freaks" were not the true mutants we are led to think they are. The armless wonders and simpletons have more humanity in them than most of the regular carnival performers. On the other hand, characters like Cleopatra and her strongman lover come off as vindictive, slimy, and…well, just plain freakish. It is this twist that gives Freaks its true heart.
None of the sideshow performers in the film are actors by trade. In fact, most of them read their lines with stiffness that would rival that of a local newscaster. Yet Browning is still able to bring a fair amount of sympathy to the characters, as well as humor and admiration. Schlitze, one of the "pinheads" of the film, lights up the screen every time he's center stage. Other performers, including a human torso and a woman with no arms, are inspiring in the way they perform everyday tasks with the greatest of ease.
Clocking it at about an hour long, Freaks never languishes in boredom. Seventy years later, the film still retains a raw power that will captivate both new and old viewers alike. And as for the infamous ending, it has the power to shock more than anything M. Night Shyamalan could dream up. Freaks is the stuff of even the worst nightmares, and God bless it for that!
Freaks is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Overall Warner has come out swinging with what will most likely be the best-looking print of the film. There is a noticeable lack of grain and dirt in the image (though small imperfections do abound). The black and gray levels are all crisply rendered and the whites are strikingly solid. The only major flaw in this transfer is the tacked-on "happy ending" at the conclusion of the film—it looks muddled and dirty. Aside of that, Freaks looks…well, freakishly good.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, an accurate representation of the original sound mix. This is a very good, if not great, sounding soundtrack to the film. There are a few spots where I had a hard time hearing the dialogue, though this is most likely due to the age of the film, not Warner's work on the mix. There is a bit of distortion in places—as well as a tiny bit of hiss—but overall the music, effects, and dialogue are well heard. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Warner has seen fit to include an odd assortment of extra features on this first ever DVD release of Freaks. The best is an over hour-long featurette titled "Freaks: Sideshow Cinema" that focuses on the production, cast members, and director Tod Browning. The feature includes interviews and historical stories by author David J. Skal and various sideshow historians and performers (including a bearded lady that is just dang freaky). Ample time is given to each performer in the movie and their history, thoughts on the film, and what their abnormalities were. This is a pretty thorough documentary on the film, and one that is well worth viewing for fans of the film.
Next up is a commentary track by David J. Skal, who also authored the book "Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre." While this commentary is packed with information and tidbits about the film, much of this same info can be found inside the featurette. Nevertheless, Skal (also featured on the Universal monster movies) is one of the best commentators working in Hollywood's DVD production houses.
Finally there is an extended prologue to the film (which is basically just written text discussing what the film is about), plus a featurette discussing three alternate ending (including one so horrible that the studio nixed it altogether).
A classic tale of the macabre, Freaks has gone on to become a quintessential cult movie. Let's hope that its release on DVD will earn it a new generation of fans. I highly recommend this to cult movie and horror lovers alike.
How can I give Freaks a negative review? Offend one, and I'd offend them all!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Author David J. Skal
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