Exploitative. Progressive. A classic. A hack job. It's not often that you can agree with both sides of a controversy regarding a movie.
Its name is Freaks, and this oft-banned tale of revenge by deformed sideshow performers was director Tod Browning's follow-up to his earlier film, Dracula. As a former circus man himself, he decided he would terrify the world by showing them real live human oddities rather than mere movie monsters. Of course, he got exactly what he wished for in that regard, and not only did the movie flop, but it also ruined his career.
Declared a classic long after it would do anyone involved with it any good, Freaks is now known as part of the horror canon. But is it really a horror movie? It may well be a thriller, and it may well be unsettling to watch 'freaks' whom we know are not the product of special effects, and it was markteted in a way that suggested a monster movie. However, Freaks belongs in a category of its own, and I cannot think of any other film that falls under it.
Freaks is pehaps the only Reverse Monster Movie.
The classic structure of a monster movie is as follows: a creature is created or discovered, and is the only one of his kind among the 'normal' world. He possesses incredible power and strength, but either because of the humans' cruelty or his own derangement, he turns violent. The monster kidnaps a beautiful human girl, for reasons which are not always entirely clear. The humans come after him, torches and pitchforks in hand, and put an end to this monstrosity.
Strangely for a movie so early in the history of cinematic horror, Freaks takes this formula (which was still in the making- it was only 1932) and turns it on its head.
In this circus world, 'freaks' constitute a large percentage of the population, making the 'normal' people seem out of place. A strong man and a beautiful woman use their undeserved advantages against their abnormal coworkers, all of whom have been nothing but kind to them. The woman purpously seduces one of the freaks, attempting to lead him to his death. When such treachery is discovered, the mob comes after them bearing not torches and pitchforks, but knives held between their teeth...
The ending has caused many people to turn away from Freaks, as the titular characters are no longer portrayed as kindly and human but as monsters and killers. I would have to disagree on this point, though, and I feel the movie wouldn't have even a half of its power if it had ended any other way. We have watched these innocent people being mocked, cheated, humiliated and nearly killed by the villains, and these villains get just what they deserve from their own victims. It's not a pretty sight, but for at least this one viewer, it's a very satistfying one.
The weakest part of the film is easily the acting. The freaks were cast because they looked, well, freakish, and not because they could act. This fact shows, and at times it's hard not to laugh. The mere fact that the film was made to capitalise on the audiance's biases against the abnormal is also unpleasent, and make no mistake: Tod Browning may have been sympathetic toward his subjects, but what he had on his mind was the money coming from people they could scare, not on what a sensitive portrayal he could create of society's rejects.
As with Dracula, a simple truth must be faced about Tod Browning: he was a hack who happened to luck into great projects. You may say it's unfair to complain about directoral skills this early in the history of film, but if you look at what his contemporaries were making (such as the brilliant James Whale and his Frankenstein movies) this excuse falls apart. Browning never grasped that a movie is more than just a filmed play, nor did he care about anything except getting the punters to pay up, just as he had in his carnival days. He was not an artist, and his films suffer for it.
And yet, in a way Tod Browning was still a craftsman. He knew what worked on the most basic level, and he used it. And both of his major movies are still perfectly watchable, with Dracula saved by the performances of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, and Freaks by its pure strangeness and surprisingly sympathetic approach, unintended as that may be. Freaks may not be a great movie, but it is an important one to any student of the macabre, for it teaches two lessons better than anything else I can think of.
Firstly, don't count on abnormalities to tell you who the monster is (preachy and trite as that message may sound in print.) And secondly, don't assume this first lesson will be a comfortable one for your viewers, or a profitable one for you.
Freaks still has the capacity to shock, and is undoubtedly not for everyone. But if you think you can take it, check it out for an update on that old Sesame Street song: the monster in the mirror just might be you.