After fulfilling his contract at Universal with two time-marking projects (Outside the Law and The Iron Man) and one landmark film (Dracula), director Tod Browning returned to his home studio, MGM. There, he’d made his mark with a string of slightly macabre — often circus- or carnival-themed — movies that frequently starred Lon Chaney.
Browning’s reputation has suffered in recent years, but it’s impossible to deny that his Dracula with Bela Lugosi — whatever its flaws — was the film that truly launched the horror genre. Today, though, the most highly regarded of Browning’s films is almost certainly the one he chose to make upon his return to MGM in 1931, Freaks.
It’s definitely the most unique, not only as concerns Browning, but film in general. To this day, there’s never been anything like it. MGM saw it simply as a way to cash in on the horror mania that came about as a result of Dracula and Frankenstein. But Browning gave the studio more than they bargained for. His film shocked and outraged censors and audiences — not in the least because it used real “freaks,” something that got it tagged as cruel and exploitative. It was withdrawn from circulation and banned outright in some places.
What was perhaps mostly wrong with the film, though, was that it made viewers uncomfortable because it forced them to side with the “freaks” against the so-called “normal” characters — despite the fact that the vengeance exacted by the “freaks” on the “normal” villains can only be viewed as drastic. It took 1960s audiences, however, to finally “get it,” to realize that far from being exploitative, the viewer was meant to identify with and be sympathetic to the “freaks.”
If you’ve never seen this strange film, here’s a chance.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Freaks will be screened Thursday, Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. at the Asheville Community Resource Center, part of the ACRC's Cult Movie Series. Donations to the ACRC, 16 Carolina Lane downtown, will be accepted.]