Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freaks (1932)

I feel like I don't cover enough of the classics so I'll try to rectify that shit.  A couple weeks ago, I wrote up The Wolf Man and its sequel (which I determined isn't worthy of "classic" status).  Well, here we got a pre-code picture from 1932 that is pretty bonafide in my opinion.  It's a picture about circus freaks simply called Freaks and was pretty controversial back in its day.  Tod Browning, the man behind the reputed classic Dracula, has fashioned himself a shocking work about deformed people (freaks) working the traveling carnival circuit and the people who are appalled by them while at the same time taking advantage of them.  Audiences were disgusted by what Browning put on film (real live freaks, no special effects) which makes this picture even more interesting because it exposed his audiences, as well as most of the normal people portrayed in the film, as prejudiced sons of bitches.  Browning was insulting his audiences years before Haneke.

What we got here is a picture that takes place entirely within the world of a traveling carnival.  We got the sideshow attractions (the titular freaks) and a few normals.  A couple of these normals, Olga the trapeze artist and Hercules the muscleman, begrudgingly put up with the weirdos.  We got lots of setup for what amounts to a barely longer than sixty minute picture.  The carnival is run by a little person named Hans who is pined after by another little person named Freida.  He feigns interest in her but only until something better comes along, better meaning normal.  Like maybe the blond trapeze artist for example.  Turns out Hans is due to inherit a large sum of money.  Olga might be interested after all.  She conspires with Hercules.  She'll marry the little bastard, poison him, and then the two of them can make off with the loot.  That's pretty much the plot.  This thing really isn't about what it's about though.  It's about how it's about what it's about. 

Today this thing would be full of special effects.  Can't use real freaks.  Exploiting freaks would cause an uproar.  Browning wanted realism in his picture and he got it.  Lots of real freaks in this thing.  We got "the human torso" which amounts to a guy with no arms and no legs who still manages to light his own cigarettes.  We got the siamese twins who have aspirations of marriage but haven't quite figured out the bed situation yet.  We've got the three sisters (I think) with bird like heads (one of them looks like Sid Haig).  We got the young woman with no arms that eats and smokes with her feet.  We got a couple dwarfs, one of whom went on to play the "master" part of "master-blaster" in Mad Max Beyond The Thunderdome.  We got the standard bearded lady type deal...only this one falls in love with a human skeleton.  And, most impressively, we got the guy with no lower half (who, as it turns out, is probably the best actor of the bunch).  There are a couple sympathetic normals who stick up for their co-workers.  Obviously, one of these sympathetic characters is a clown.  

As I mentioned earlier, for a sixty minute picture, this thing takes a while to get going.  That's a good thing.  We get a peak into the lives of these freaks.  Character is important and we got lots of characters here.  One thing weirded me out though.  I'll be honest.  At first I thought Hans and Freida were children.  And brother and sister.   So, I found it inappropriate that they were alluding to things like love and marriage.  Also, could we get a translator for these two?  I couldn't understand a god damned thing they were saying.  Except when Hans would constantly refer to his normal employees as "swine".  

Anyway, in the portrayal of the lovable freaks and also Cleopatra and Hercules what the picture is doing is showing us that freaks are more human than most humans.  Until the end when the freaks gather up knives, guns, etc and chase Cleopatra through the rain soaked forest and then chop off her legs, melt down her hands, cut out her tongue, gouge out an eye, tar and feather her, etc (some of this wasn't shown in the movie, I had to read it on wikipedia).  The movie loses its message a bit with that climax when it turns the freaks into monsters.  Admittedly, the bitch did have it coming.  I also understand that Browning needed to excite the audiences with some sort of horrific climax.  You know, to sell the thing.  Nothing more horrific than a bunch of freaks crawling through the muck on their way to disfiguring some broad I guess.

So, this is a classic alright.  I loved it.  Being pre-code and all we got bosomy women wearing skimpy outfits and some sexual innuendo between Hercules and Cleopatra, like the conversation about how many "fried eggs" would he like to eat for "dinner" and shit.  That's weird innuendo, but it worked.  The final reveal, the shock moment, that I already spoiled, is equal parts horrific and funny.  Then there's a tacked on scene involving Freida and Hans getting together at his newly acquired mansion which feels a bit perfunctory.  Should have left it out.  Oh, and sorry for overusing the word freaks.  I just like saying freaks.  Of all the movies about freaks, and especially called freaks, this one is probably the best, or close to it.

1 comment:

d said...

I love this movie, and I'm very happy that you are revisiting classics now!
Freaks is such a great example of a film that "shows" rather than "tells," in my opinion. You mention that the movie would be mainly CGI if made today. I think they would also make a huge point of saying "just because they look weird, doesn't mean they aren't real people" if they made it today. Instead we get to kow the characters a little bit and are able to see this for ourselves.

I keep telling A that my family will chant "one of us, gooble gobble" at the wedding. Wouldn't that be great?