A peal of thunder echoed outside, followed by a flash of lightning. Rivulets of water started sliding down the narrow windowpanes of the library; a perfect setting in which to view one of cinema’s more outré movies, Freaks. Zombos passed the bottle of claret over to Uncle LaVey, the blackest of the black sheep in Zimba’s family tree, and I inserted the DVD into the player. Dressed in his black shirt and pants, and with his black widow’s peaked hairline and black goatee, he presented quite the look of the Satanist about town.
As we watched the movie I could not help but wonder what Tod Browning and MGM were thinking when they made this movie? Browning definitely wanted to shock and unsettle his audience, and MGM wanted a horror movie that would rival his earlier Dracula success; but what both eventually achieved was an exploitation styled B-movie with flashes of brilliance and disgust that has entertained, insulted, and outraged audiences since 1932. The story of little Hans (Harry Earles) and his futile infatuation with the considerably taller Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), set against the backdrop of the sideshow and its singular denizens, still manages to make one ill at ease upon viewing.
No other movie has embraced the participation of real-life freaks like Browning’s film does here: Prince Randian, the Living Torso; Pete Robinson, the Living Skeleton; Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady; Martha Morris, the Armless Wonder; Joseph/Josephine, the Half-Man, Half-Woman; the Pinheads; the Hilton Sisters; Johnny Eck, The Half-Boy; Angelo Rossitto (Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and the others were well off the bell curve average. While Browning was heading down a less traveled cinematic road with movies like The Unholy Three and The Unknown, his need for showing the unconventional hit its zenith in Freaks.
Taking Tod Robbins’ story Spurs, Browning (who had already used Robbins’ novel The Unholy Three with critical and financial success), weaves a tale of murder and revenge that’s more unsettling and ends more horrifically than its source material. Adding a sexual overtone that undoubtedly offended his ‘normal’ audiences when it first hit theaters, and portraying his actors as regular people with incredible physical characteristics, then unleashing them as demonic angels of vengeance when mistreated, Browning makes you squirm and sweat watching it all unfold.
“Gooble, gobble!” LaVey chanted as the infamous wedding feast scene began. “Zombos, this scene always reminds me of your wedding,” he joked. Zombos was not amused.
Come to think of it, it reminded me of his wedding party, too. How odd.
The wedding scene is the highlight of the movie. It is here Cleopatra humiliates Hans and his friends, thereby sealing her doom. Falling back on his more comfortable silent movie direction skills, Browning even introduces the scene with an intertitle card announcing “The Wedding Feast.” While he may be comfortable, we aren’t as unsettling close-ups of the circus friends enjoying the festivities are juxtaposed with Hans’ growing realization he’s made a mistake. The drunk Cleopatra openly shows her affection for Hercules, the sideshow’s strongman. As Hans sits, humiliated, the oblivious revelers begin chanting “gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble, we accept her, we accept her one of us.” While the chant continues, Angelo Rossitto jumps on the table and passes around a large goblet overflowing with wine so everyone can take a sip from it. Cleopatra looks in horror as the cup comes closer and closer, eventually recoiling in terror as the cup is held up to her. She takes it and yells “No…dirty…slimy freaks!” and tosses the wine into Rossitto’s startled face.
In his book, The Monster Show, David Skal notes the wedding feast was heavily censored, and one particularly interesting element that would have intensified and justified Cleopatra’s horror at drinking from the communal goblet was removed; as the cup is being passed around, some freaks dribble into it. I leave it to you whether this possibly more nauseating visual should have been included.
Foreshadowing the horror to come, Browning uses more close-ups of Rossitto’s scowling face furtively peering into Hans’ wagon, watching Cleopatra slowly poisoning him, and again as he peers into Hercules’ wagon to see her and the muscle man conspiring against Hans. What follows is one of horror cinema’s more memorable series of scenes as Hans’ friends carry out their revenge.
As Tetrollini’s Traveling Circus prepares to get under way during a dark and stormy night (well, it was), we see Johnny Eck scampering beneath the wagons. As lightning and thunder play in the background, the camera follows him making his way to the huddled group of freaks patiently waiting, away from prying eyes, for their moment of reckoning.
With the traveling circus underway in the downpour, we cut to Hans’ wagon, rolling along in the muddy road. His diminutive friends, gathered by his bedside, quietly watch as Cleopatra once again prepares her poisonous medication. Only this time, Hans confronts her, asking for the bottle of poison. She looks down at Hans, then in horror at his friends who quietly pull out their knives to casually clean them. Cleopatra is understandably alarmed and the spoon of poison drops from her numb fingers.
Now cut to mighty Hercules who is also having a bad night. A knife flashes through the dark and slides into his side, bringing him down to the muddy road, down to their level, where he is relentlessly pursued by a swarm of freaks crawling through the mud and rain, brandishing weapons. The scene is nightmarish. I wonder how much audiences in Browning’s day squirmed in their seats watching it. The ending that was intended, but not used, has Hercules survive, but speaking with a much higher voice. You can draw your own conclusions.
Now back to Cleopatra: her wagon overturns and she briefly escapes the little demons by running into the nearby woods. We see her screaming one last time as they close in on her.
The original ending had a tree struck by lightning fall on her, crushing her legs, and the freaks swarming over her prostrate form to exact their hideous revenge. As shown in the final movie, after her scream we immediately move ahead in time to a sideshow where she appears horribly disfigured as one of the freak attractions. Dressed in a humiliating bird costume and unable to speak, she can only utter unintelligible sounds. The once proud and beautifully statuesque Cleopatra is now a hideous mute freak with a shattered mind and body.
As the movie ended, Zimba returned to snatch Uncle LaVey away. Zombos and I breathed a sigh of relief. Returning to our claret, we pondered the vagaries of moviemaking, and how a daring director got a major studio to produce one of the oddest classics of horror cinema. Forgotten for a very long time and almost lost to us, it was given new life and much needed recognition in the 1960s by photographer Diane Arbus’ successful efforts to bring it to the attention of the cinema art-house crowds.
So we can always remember that “But for an accident at birth, you might be as they are.”
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