Movie-Hype00689 – FREAKS
Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE gained a good deal of notoriety for having been banned in Britain for almost 30 years. However, two score years before anyone had ever conceived of “Singing in the Rain” being used to such nefarious purpose another film was banned, both in England and Stateside, banned, reviled and otherwise kept from the eyes of small children. More chilling: while A CLOCKWORK ORANGE might be art at its oily evilest, FREAKS was completely real.
There was this thing called The Production Code, in place for over 30 years, and regulating harshly what could and could no be put into movies. This is why all those movies from the '40s and '50s seem so tame by today's standards, and imply rather than show. True, some of it was art over artifice, the understanding that less is often more, that true sexiness and terror came from what was imagined more than what was revealed, but much of it was simply because Hollywood had no choice.
(Verily: if you know your movie history at all you can probably imagine when the Production Code disintegrated: the late '60s. When that occurred, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and for several years there was a glut of overt violence, sex, nudity, language; you name it as producers rushed to get in as much as they could, much like a Lion on the Savannah gorges, fearing when the next meal might come. It took some time before Hollywood discovered that solution was no better than the Pollyanna rules they'd lived under before.)
While I'd love to write an entire column tracing the explosion of explicit material that came with the Production Code, and what positive and negative effects it had on the world of Film, I am more interested in what caused the Production Code in the first place. A very large part of that was FREAKS.
At barely over an hour, director Tod Browning crafted a movie so simple and straightforward, and yet reaching in with icy fingers to the origins of fear for many in that day. Those fears are for the unknown, for seeing people who are so unlike what we understand as people. Forget simple racism, the fear of someone with different skin. This is another league. And for potential parents, the fear is kicked up a notch .
Drawing upon his own experience in a Traveling Circus, FREAKS tells the story of Circus Freaks: their lives, their loves, their sense of justice, their implacable will to carry that justice out.
In the story Hans is a courtly dwarf, happy with Frieda, one of his own kind. However, when the extraordinarily beautiful full-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra shows an interest, Hans is putty in her hands.
None of the freaks are too happy about this betrayal, but Frieda defends her love. How can any man, especially of their kind, resist the charms of the alluring and bendy Cleopatra?
However, when the Freaks discover that Cleopatra has conspired with brutal muscle man Hercules (the only other “normal” sized person) to bilk Hans out of his family's money, well, to make a bad pun, they get Freaky on Cleopatra.
If the story were made today it would feature many special effects, great costumes and makeup, and quite possibly give chills, but still fall in the range of regular movies. But remember what I told you: FREAKS was made before the Production Code.
What this means is that Browning was able to use real Circus Freaks.
The first sight of some of these people is laughter, because we don't know how else to react . I'm not talking about the man who's lost a limb you try not to look at in the restroom, for fear of offending, or the severely retarded girl with misshapen features, the kind of people where your first instinct might be a slight inner recoil that you stop yourself from completing, because you have manners, and because you're a civilized person who knows that boorish behavior like this is cruel.
No, we're several levels beyond that.
The Freaks in FREAKS are truly magnificent, and I say that will full appreciation of irony. You simply cannot find Circus sideshows like this anymore, and the “collection” if you will, is unparalleled.
Now, I know what you're thinking: “why would you want to look at them like animals in a zoo? You're part of the problem!” And so forth. I get that, but you're missing my meaning. It is because Circus shows are no longer allowed, it is because you could never in a million years make a movie with the real thing that FREAKS is so invaluable.
I'm not saying Freak shows of yore were good things. Far from it. The audiences came to stare, point and laugh, and the Freaks were treated as less than human, as they certainly were thought of.
But the thing is, that's the only place they had to go. At that time someone who looked that different was ostracized or run off. It wasn't even considered mean: it was just the way things were. These poor people were worse than lepers: not even pitied, but reviled everywhere they went. At least in the traveling shows they could find others who had similar experiences. They could find some comfort and strength in numbers. In short: they could find family, a home.
And this is what makes FREAKS such a great horror film. After you get over the shock of seeing people with heads the size of a small fist, skeleton men, bearded ladies, and others you wouldn't believe if I described them, you come to identify with the group. Not sympathy hopefully—for that is the basest and unintentionally cruel of feelings—but empathy. You imagine what it's like being in their place, and you root for these people like you root for no one else in the movies. You feel protective of them, and how DARE someone try to hurt them?
I myself have always been much much much larger than people around me. Partly because of this, I have grown used to people looking, staring, their face going too smooth as they try to hide the thoughts. It's no big deal, but just that experience, though small in comparison, gives me great empathy to Browning's Circus Freaks. I'm betting you will have it too.
Speaking of Browning, I think the key to understanding what he was about was his experience growing up in a circus. Because of that, the tone of this movie is entirely different than it might be from an Outsider. Sure at first you're a bit taken aback to see these people, and one can only imagine the tumult caused back when.
But we are quickly past that. What we end up with is a quick realization of how Ironic the title “Freaks” is. These are people, freaks by the vernacular of the day, but no less deserving of love and caring. And by the end of the movie, the title has taken on a different meaning, as we realize FREAKS might not refer to our Circus people at all.
FREAKS really is a must see, if for no other reason than the signature moments. One such includes Prince Randian, who has no arms and no legs, lighting a cigarette. It's just too cool for school. (Seriously: I would love an entire movie on him.) The other scene of course is the iconic one, and without giving too much away, the dialogue goes like this:
“We accept you, one of us! Gobble Gobble!”
You have probably heard that line in popular culture before. Now see where it came from, and be truly afraid.