Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Tod Robbins' story - Spurs PDF
Freaks is a genuine one-off... No one had made anything like it before, and no one
has made anything like it since. You will at least have heard about it, something about
the use of 'real freaks' or its 30-year ban in the UK, but the film itself is something
quite different. In fact, it is a highly moral film, a simple story of love and intrigue
that just happens to be set amongst circus folk, including the 'freaks'.
Based on the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins, this was the film Tod Browning wanted to make after his success with his 1931 classic Dracula. This proved to be somewhat of a mistake, as the majority of the public who saw the film were horrified. This wasn't Bela Lugosi in a cloak; these people were real. Browning, who had in the past worked in a circus alongside such 'freaks' possibly underestimated the effect that their appearance on the silver screen would have on its audience. After the release of Freaks, Browning found it increasingly difficult to find work. Now, of course, the film is considered a classic, and was, in the US, chosen National Film Registry's archive of 'cinematic treasures'.
The story is simplicity itself: Cleopatra, the circus' trapeze artist, and Hercules, the circus strongman (the 'normals' of the story) plot to relieve one of the midgets, Hans, of his fortune by having Cleopatra marry him, and then disposing of him by means of poison. Many of the 'freaks' suspect Hans is being taken for a fool, but, during the wedding celebrations they accept Cleopatra as "one of us." This does not go down well at all. Shortly after, Hans is poisoned, but not killed, and the freaks realise that harm is being done to one of their own. Their code of honour decrees that this can not go unpunished, which leads to one of the creepiest scenes in cinema history as the freaks close in upon their prey.
The freaks, by their very appearance, add to the strangeness of the film. There are the Siamese twins, the 'living torso', the hermaphrodite and several microcephalics (known in the film as 'pinheads'). But it is two of the 'normals' that are the villains of the piece. These freaks are not portrayed as monsters, although the ending of the film does seem to suggest they have some very strange powers indeed.
The film was re-released as a Region 1 DVD in 2004. Besides the film itself, this edition contains three slightly different alternate endings (an extra scene that takes place some time after the rest of the story), a prologue 'message' that was added to the film on its reissue, and a fascinating documentary about the film, which, among other things, details what is known about the lives of some of the actors.