BluRay/DVD Reviews

FREAKS

By • Aug 10th, 2004 •

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(Warner Home Video) 1932
62 mins / AR: 1.33:1

Imagine walking through MGM studios in 1932. You’re bump into glamorous people like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. You’re also bump into a few pinheads, Johnny the legless boy and other “mishaps of nature”. You wonder, this is MGM, home of beautiful movie stars, why are these “freaks” here? MGM steered from their usual brand of glamorous, glossy productions to make FREAKS, a very odd, fascinating horror/drama set amongst a carnival side-show. Upon it’s release, FREAKS was condemned, censored and basically pushed off the screen. FREAK’s director, Tod Browning, watched his once illustrious career dry up. In the sixties, FREAKS gathered a cult following of adventuresome movie-goers. Today, it is regarded as one of the most respected horror films ever made.

FREAKS begins with Hans, a baby-like midget (Harry Earles, one of the singing Munchkins from THE WIZARD OF OZ) becoming infatuated with Cleopatra, a tall, sexy trapeze artist. Cleopatra and her muscle-man boyfriend learn that Hans is heir to a mega-fortune. She plays along with Hans’ flirting. Hans and Cleo have a bizarre wedding feast. (Get a load of the wedding ballad the freaks sing for them! Boy, does it stick with you!) Cleopatra begins slipping poison to Hans. As he grows weaker, his suspicious circus freak cronies are watching Cleopatra’s sinister moves.

FREAKS received the green-light for production thanks to MGM’s co-manager Irving Thalberg. Thalberg wanted to make, once a year, a modestly budgeted “art-house” film. It would lose money for the otherwise profitable studio, but do wonders for the studio’s prestige. Some of the other experimental features Thalberg okayed were King Vidor’s HALLEJUAH, a drama set amongst poor African-Americans in the deep south, and Woody Van Dyke’s ESKIMO (1934), an Arctic murder mystery that unfolds using the Eskimo language. (Writer’s note: I now know how to threaten people with harpoons in Eskimo-ese)

Warners’ DVD release of FREAKS, besides being gorgeously mastered, is a treasure chest of vintage horror. It comes with an hour long documentary tracing the making of this bizarre, enjoyable classic, including biographical bits on each of the “freaks.” We learn that the pinheads (medically known as microcephalics) had a wonderfully dry sense of humor they applied to their side-show acts. Johnny Eck, the handsome legless boy was part of a macabre magic act that surely blew the minds of depression-era audiences.

Another thing you will learn from FREAKS, and the accompanying documentary, is that very often the outwardly beautiful people can be very freaky, and vice versa.


Cast:
Wallace Ford
Leila Hyams
Olga Baclanova
Roscoe Ates
Henry Vicktor

Credits:
Produced and Directed by Tod Browning.
Screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon.
Suggested by Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs”.
Commentary by David J. Skal.
Documentary ‘Freaks: Sideshow Cinema’.
Special message prologue added for theatrical reissue.

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