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It Came From the Cultosphere: Real-Life Horrors of ‘Freaks’

There’s really no other movie in history like ‘Freaks,’ and it comes down to one simple fact: The costumes didn’t come off when the cameras stopped rolling.

That makes watching ‘Freaks’ a unique experience, even now. It might be even stranger now, in fact, than it was back in 1932. In the 1930s, going to a carnival with a freak show was not an uncommon experience. What’s more, it wasn’t considered strange or wrong to pay money to stare at someone with a disability. It was considered entertainment. Now, in the 21st century, forget a live show — it’s uncomfortable just to watch a movie that simulates that, even when most (all?) of the performers have been dead for decades.

And that’s why ‘Freaks’ will always be a landmark movie in the history of horror. Because here, the horror isn’t what’s on the surface — the evil strongman and acrobat being gruesomely punished by their fellow circus performers. The real horror is what’s lurking beneath the surface, what’s going through the head of every viewer who’s seen the movie since 1932: What would it be like to be born like that?

And this is where ‘Freaks’ plays its ace. The thing about the movie, and about the freaks (for lack of a better, more 21st century term) is that after the initial shock, you forget all about that initial reaction and you start admiring them.

Take Johnny Eck (originally Echkardt) for example. Born without anything below the waist (or, for that matter, a waist), he gets around as quickly as anyone in the film, using what must be amazingly muscular arms to hop, run, climb and go wherever he needs to go. Or, for a more extreme example, take Prince Randian — a man with no arms and no legs — who manages to light his own cigarette on camera. Now that’s impressive. (Off camera, he managed to father five children. That’s even more impressive!)

But there’s another level to ‘Freaks.’ In its carny-bred little heart, it’s too deliciously sleazy to be merely heartwarming. Director Tod Browning, who spent his misspent youth living the carny life, fills the frame with off-color material every chance he can get, from the main plot (big woman seduces little man for his money) throughout the various subplots (which we’ll get to in a second) right up to the deleted ending (Hercules, the evil strongman, was original castrated). In fact, once you’re over your initial shock of the actors, you’ll still be shocked by how “adult” this movie manages to be.

Examples?

The villains can barely keep their hands off each other. (In one memorable moment, Cleopatra opens her robe and asks Hercules “How do you like them?” — allegedly talking about some eggs she’s cooking, but we know what she’s really referring to.) Even the movie’s good girl, played by lovely Leila Hyams, wears some of the shortest shorts of the 20th century and has a conversation with nice guy Wallace Ford while he’s apparently nude in a bathtub. (He’s not, but we don’t learn that until the scene is over).

And then there’s what audiences came to see, even if they didn’t admit it: The sex lives of the freaks themselves. Josephine Joseph, the half-man/half-woman is the butt of much joking and speculation, but we actually see one of the Siamese twins swoon in ecstasy as her sister gets kissed. And then there’s what obviously happened about nine months ago between the bearded lady and human skeleton. That unseen moment of passion results in one of the more touching scenes in the movie. When the bearded lady gives birth, the freaks gather to congratulate her. It’s a sharp contrast to the darker times when the freaks would gather — at the wedding banquet and, of course, at the shocking ending.

It’s those two scenes that really stay with you after watching ‘Freaks.’ The wedding banquet follows the marriage of big Cleopatra and little Hans. His friends gather and get more rowdy as they get more drunk. In what they intend to be a gesture of acceptance, a loving cup full of liquor is passed around as they chant “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you, one of us.” (Inspiring the Ramones’ “Gabba gabba hey” four decades later.) Cleopatra is sickened, throws the liquor in Angelo Rossitto’s stunned face and, in a chilling moment, screams “Dirty … slimy … FREAKS!” Obviously, things are not going to end well.

Which brings us to the big finale. It’s here that ‘Freaks’ makes another switch, from good-natured melodrama to all-out horror film. By all accounts, Browning respected his unusual cast, but he wasn’t above exploiting them for a shocking finale. (And, to be honest, most of the cast made their livings exploiting themselves.) Because, when the freaks finally take revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules, they’re meant to be terrifying — mostly because they’re different from us.

Browning makes the most of the low-angle, shadowy shots of the freaks lurking in the mud, clutching their weapons, preparing to do something terrible to the evil normals. We’re with them 100 percent, of course, but they’ve become the monsters we were promised on the posters. Heroic monsters, but monsters nonetheless. The scenes are shot for maximum visceral impact — they’re meant to scare us, character identification and story logic be damned. (Really, what is Prince Randian going to do with that knife in his teeth?)

Browning’s gambit works. This isn’t just the scariest scene in the movie, it’s one of the scariest in all of 1930s horror. And, like all the scenes in ‘Freaks,’ whether they’re funny, touching or scandalous, it gets its power — its real power — from our knowledge that when Browning yells “cut” and the cameras stop rolling, those costumes aren’t coming off.

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