29 October 2008

Movielog, Freaks

Freaks, 1932
Written and Directed by Tod Browning
Based on the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins
64 minutes

Banned in many areas upon its release, routinely named one of the most controversial films of all time by film historians and scholars, Tod Browning's Freaks may seem dated in its stylistic choices and (at times) in its attitudes towards its title characters, but it has retained nearly all of its ability to shock, inspire, and to see the world in a new way that it had when it first premiered in 1932. The film was so reviled at the time that approximately half an hour was cut from the original edit (some of it, admittedly, from descriptions of the cut sequences, not without reason), leaving Browning with a film that runs for only slightly more than an hour. Even the bowdlerized version would spell the end of Browning's career as a director -- this, from a man who was known at the time as being a highly commercial filmmaker, making many of Lon Chaney's greatest hits, including 1931's Dracula.

Why? Firstly, for those not knowledgeable about the film, Freaks includes actual "freaks", most of whom had various types of congenital developmental disorders, cast in the roles main characters. While Browning's original plan was to have his frequent co-star Lon Chaney perform several roles in innovative makeup, the eventual decision to use real-life circus performers transforms the film from one that would have merely exploited these physical deformities to one that celebrates the lives of those who have them.

This is further accomplished by having most of the "normal" actors in the film behave antagonistically towards the (mostly) saintly freaks. The plot revolves around the "Venus" of the circus where the film takes place using her charms to gain gifts and other favors from Hans, one of the dwarfs in the show (Harry Earles) -- later, when she discovers he has a fat inheritance, she marries the diminutive man and begins to poison him.

By modern standards, the plot is rather slight, even more so when you consider that large sections of the film consist of simple cutaways to the titular freaks performing the routines of their day-to-day life. Perhaps the most astonishing is one in which a sixtish man born without arms and legs (i.e. a "Human Torso") casually opens a pack of matches and lights a cigarette, all using only his mouth. This is even more impressive when one learns that the scene was originally longer, showing the man also rolling that same cigarette.

All of the freaks are sympathetic, most significantly more so than even the most saintly "normal" members of the circus. This is slightly marred by a final sequence in which the freaks attack the scheming Venus and her colluding boyfriend strongman. This sequence feels out of place, but it also provides the overall structure for the film, without which it most likely would not have been made.

Freaks is much more accepted by today's audiences than those at the time of its first release. It has a sizable cult following and is well-respected by film historians. Persons with deformities at least as extreme as those in this film can be seen on medical cable TV shows and specials on a regular basis. But this film still has the capacity to entertain, not least for the way its visuals and attitudes seem almost modern at times, for the charm of its performers and the quality of the acting even of the non-professionals. It deserves at least a single viewing by anyone trying to get an education on the history of the medium, and it's well worth the time.

Note: The film is out of copyright and is available online in its entirety, although I rented the DVD from Netflix.

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