Thursday, July 20, 2006

Freaks (1932)

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

It's an inevitable psychological response, humans tend to repel, disassociate, or react violently when shown something that is foreign like an unnatural misrepresentation of the human form. These unnatural misrepresentations however are not mere fantasies found in story books, they are real and more often than not, are hidden from the public eye, creating an unconscious stigma. It's an inevitable reaction, as let's say in the opening sequence of Tod Browning's infamous film Freaks where a man barters off his wares, a spectacle of sideshow freaks, that the men would get wide-eyed in suspicion and disgust, and women would shriek in horror. The man then explains to his customers how the freak came to be, and Browning invites us to partake of a story of carnival freaks intermingling with the rest of the human world.

The story of Freaks concerns itself with Cleo (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze whose grace and beauty have wooed Hans (Harry Earles), a wealthy midget, into showering her with praises and expensive gifts. Cleo, along with her lover, a strongman named Hercules (Henry Victor), comes up with a plan to steal Han's vast inheritance, by Cleo marrying the lovestruck midget and eventually poisoning him and thus inheriting the midget's vast fortune. Cleo and Hercules' plan does not end as intended, as the other sideshow freaks guard their brood with fraternal zeal. The duo get what they deserve, as plan for vengeance is brainstormed by the malformed and their sympathizers.

Freaks has been misunderstood over time. It is only now that the film is getting the recognition it deserves. Quickly disowned by MGM after being hugely criticized by the public for its seemingly exploitative use of real freaks, the film was later on exhibited in freak shows, and was added an introductory statement that whitewashes its supposed exploitative intent. The film was also shortened by thirty minutes, and a happy ending was eventually introduced in exchange for a much more bothersome one: which reportedly involves Hercules would be singing soprano, after being castrated by the vengeful band of freaks. The original ending would be lost forever. The present form of Browning's film is far from his vision. Entire sideplots have been erased, and characterization has been sidetracked in favor of quick and easy spectacle.

Interestingly though, the present form of Freaks still showcases Browning as a talented filmmaker. Browning was able to envision and realize visuals and scenes that elicit nightmarish horror while maintaining a natural and bothersome ease. Browning shocks, but is not intent on merely shocking for he eases his film with the utilizition of the freaks' unnatural bodily form as centerpoints for his intentions of both horror and sympathy. In one scene, Browning shows a group of pinheads, limbless individuals, and dwarves playing in a forest clearing. What is evoked is not only a discomforting spectacle of horror but a sense of innocence and childlike naivety these freaks also exude. They are in fact the ones fearing those who would oppress them. That fear enables them to band together, creating a code that would guide and protect them from the whims of the non-freaks. The code is highest in their hierarchy of beliefs, making them overcome both inherent fear and innocence with the motivation of protecting their own. That becomes the centerpiece of Browning's horror, that psychological transformation of these seemingly safe and friendly beings from playful children to murderous and vindictive monsters.

The pinnacle of such horror is depicted in the final sequences which were depicted with frightening sensibility. The carnival caravans being driven in a row underneath a dark rainy sky where the slight light from the scarce lamps and the occasional thunderous lightning are the only sources of illumination. Within these caravans, the freaks are brainstorming a plan for vengeance. One brilliant scene involves Hans revealing that he knows of Cleo and Hercules' plan, forcing Cleo to recant when she becomes surrounded by three other freaks carrying a knife, a gun, and one playing an uncomfortable tune with his flute. The sequence climaxes in the culmination of the freaks' plan for revenge. The filmmaking is absolutely impressive. Browning mixes shock and creeping horror when the freaks slowly crawl, walk, squirm towards the villains. It is thus unfortunate that Freaks became a victim of studio politics and misconceptions since what we have now is a mere abridged film. One wonders if we'll ever be granted the brilliance of Browning's original vision.

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