Much has been written of Freaks but the one thing that is not often enough said is that it is a work of art.
When I saw it the first time as a child, it was a bit much even for a precocious horror fan. It made me worry it could somehow be possible that if a freak touched me, I might turn into a chicken.
It was decades before i realized Cleopatra was turned into a duck, not a chicken, but either way, good lord that's something that can really twink with a kid's mind.
On adult viewings the climactic turned-into-a-duck routine is not so convincing. It does not really seem to be something that grows out of the plot.
It is in huge part a story of family life between likeable characters who happen to be physical oddities. We're given no reason to believe they have the surgical, magical, or just plain vicious capacities required to result in this conclusion.
So as an adult it's the one flaw in an overall perfect film. But as a little kid it was absolutely the scariest thing possible.
But apart from that unusual & culminating bit of silliness, the film is otherwise a darkly beautiful look into a closed world of carnies & carnival freaks.
Despite the horrid stir it made when it was new, it strikes me as in reality pretty tasteful (given the premise) in acknowledging that "even freaks" have human emotions & sexual feelings & love & friendships.
And the root of the furor the film experienced in the 1930s was not because Freaks was too ferociously horrific, but because it acknowledged the existence of a love-life among physically anomalous circus performers.
Thus when the production studio decided the film could not be profitably distributed, the rights were bought by exploitation exhibitor Dwain Esper, whose roadshow promoted the film under the pornographic title Forbidden Love.
The use of actual circus freaks lent Freaks its gritty reality: Johnny Eck the Half-boy, Josephine Joseph the half-man half-woman, Siamese twins Daisy & Violet Hilton, babyfaced midgets Harry & Daisy Earles...
Harry was one of the Lollipop Guild singers in Wizard of Oz (1932)... It's Harry who plays the character of Hans who falls in love with a normal tall girl, the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who takes brutal advantage of his misguided affections.
Now Hans is a good looking little guy & it's not out of the question that a "normal" woman would fall for him, & Hans wasn't really such a fool in allowing himself to believe Cleopatra was on the level.
But apparently the filmgoing public of the day (or least the censors) didn't like the idea at all. How much more would they have reacted if one of the pinheads or Josephine Joseph or Prince Rosco the caterpillar man had on-screen love affairs?
I mean, Tod Browning was being decidedly tasteful if you think about it. Yet in the 1930s it was just too much for some people. And I guess that is revealing about the prejudices "normal" people can feel, without good reason, being so bigotted that the idea of a good looking man & a good looking woman having a relationship just isn't going to wash if the man is a little person.
At the engagement party Koo Koo does her famous dance on the table, & Cleopatra is welcomed into the family of freaks with the chant, "We accept you! One of us! Gooble gobble gooble gobble!" which could get us kids in trouble chanting the same thing in the lunch room at school.
Cleopatra suddenly wigs out at the very notion of being one of them. She reveals in no uncertain terms her true feelings. Thus sealing her horrific fate.
Even in the context of a horror tale, wherein maltreating a freak can result in the most appalling punishment, these performers retain a high degree of rebel dignity.
Prince Randian the armless legless man, for key example, has a scene where just using his chin & lips he removes a cigarette, takes a match from a matchbox & strikes it, lights his own cigarette, then stares right into the camera as if to say to the audience, "Satisfied, you dumbasses?"
Starting with Depression era costuming & a carnival getting ready for a new weekend, Freakshow (2007) gets off the ground with an effective moody feel, for which we may imagine a good story just might be concocted.
It also takes advantage of the remnant sets from the outstanding HBO series Carnivale (2003-2005), so that recreating the period was not beyond a B-pic's budget.
Alas for the most part what we'll get instead of a good story are standard gore FX. But even lacking any sense of quality, Freakshow has sleeze appeal.
The soundtrack is spiced with vintage tunes & is great. We also see some actual freakshow performers, the hooks through the flesh act, the armless knife thrower (Jimmy Goldman), the wolfboy (Larry Gomez) who really was born with this rare hursuit condition, & a few others.
Freakshow could've done with more of that authenticity, & less phony padding out of the freak population, vis, Amy Dunton as "Bobby-Bobbie" a lame imitation of Joseph/Josephine from Freaks, adding the satiric gag about the pickled baby.
A gang of thieves, including a woman, have signed on as roustabouts with a plan to steal the weekend's take & kill a man to get it. The boil-covered manager (Christopher Adamson) falls for Lucy (Rebekah Kochan) the crooked girl from the gang & wants to marry her, bringing her into the heart of the circus family. The manager gives his dialogue impersonating Boris Karloff & his name is Lon, as in Chaney, get it, eh, eh, get it?
Lucy's up for the marriage, having heard a rumor that Lon's secretly wealthy. But at the party patterned after the "One of us!" celebration in Brownings Freaks, Lucy reveals her true character.
One of the gang members kills & hacks up a little girl freak Kimmy (McKenna Geu). It was necessary drag in child-slaughter so that whatever happens to the gang after that will be just fine, no matter how abominably yucky.
The gang leader who had been screwing the beautiful Cannibal Girl (Amanda Ward) finds out she's not just pretending to be a cannibal, while the freaks go on a gory slaughter patrol of graphic revenge.
But the best is saved for Lucy for having spurned the family. She'll go through a transformation to become the best freak of all. In Tod Browning's original Freaks, it was never shown exactly how the villainess could've been turned into big ugly bird. But this film's centerpiece is the transformation process itself, as ultra-graphic surgery.
Sherri (Sharon Edrei) is the woman who is the real power behind the family & after Lon's emotional downfall over Lucy, she takes over the task of orchestrating the radically grotesque maiming of Lucy, which is quite an amazingly gross-out process which renders the final "reveal" mere anticlimax.
As a cheesy homage to a classic, Freakmaker is passing fun for hardcore horror fans fond of homages. But never is it apt to be on anyone's list of great horror films.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl