Freaks (DVD, 2004) Reviews
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Freaks (DVD, 2004)

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Best Horror Movies FREAKS Banned Horror Classic Write-Off !

Mar 10, 2001 (Updated Sep 28, 2010)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A film of compassion and still powerful nightmarish climax

Cons:Dated, some wooden acting.

The Bottom Line: A once banned classic horror film which will no longer shock anyone, but still has images which might give you nightmares.

Freaks is a dated,melodramatic, horror classic which boasts an ending so powerful and shocking, it still resonates with modern audiences nearly 80 years after it was filmed. Several fine reviews of this film can be found by good writers and critics here at epinions and I strongly recommend you glance in particular at the review written by Janesbit (there is an item in that review which addresses a misconception I'll correct here).

Is FREAKS the greatest or scariest horror film ever made? Of course not. The moment you declare anything the greatest or scariest several others will come to mind. Someone will consider it their mission to disprove your declaration, emphasize its flaws.  It is however one of the best, that continues to pack the kind of memorable images that still have the power to give nightmares nearly 80 years after it was released. 

This review/discussion of the film Freaks is part of not one but 2 write-offs I am honored to participated in.


I read articles about Freaks in various film-journals when I was still in my early teens and scoured the local college campus film society screenings and revival theaters within 100 miles of my home hoping they would have the wisdom to screen this film I had read so many fascinating articles about.

The first time I saw the film I was 15 years old. It played in a college auditorium to a standing room only audience. I had arrived an hour early and because I wasn't a student was panicked I would be denied entrance when I noticed the long line for the film already forming. I had been waiting a few years to see the film. . . and that was nearly an eternity to over-anxious film buff in the pre-cable/video/dvd age.

Tod (one d) Browning was a film director I had read several things about. He worked with the legendary Lon Chaney (Sr.) making several silent and one sound film (The Unholy Three was shot as both a silent and sound film several years apart) with him. He had spent time with the circus as a young man, worked as an actor in vaudeville and in silent films. He became an assistant director for D.W. Griffith on Intolerance. And Griffith's influences are apparent in his early melodramatic films and in his work with Chaney. He made the difficult transition to sound films which restricted film-makers into creating less visually creative, more studio set-bound films due to the technical demands of recording sound. Large noisy film cameras had to be housed inside boxes and actors had to learn how to say their lines into strategically placed microphones.

It was a challenging time to make films and it's remarkable the success Browning achieved with the low budged 1931, classic Dracula. It was Browning who insisted on casting the thickly accented Hungarian actor who had created a memorable interpretation of Dracula for the New York stage (Bela Lugosi). Dracula became a huge hit and Browning was given a very generous budget for his next project. A project based on the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins and involving screenwriters Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Edgar Allen Woolf and Al Boasberg. A film which would become : FREAKS.

There remains rumors the 64 minute film was once much longer and while some pre-release changes were made by MGM (a tacked on brief happy ending, and a possible censor of a scene involving castration), the confusion is actually based on the fact that a short documentary on circus freaks entitled Nature's Mistakes once preceded the film during it's road show re-release in the late 30's and 1940's. Sometimes the film was shown under the title NATURE'S MISTAKES (there are prints of the film with title cards calling it Forbidden Love and The Monster Show as well). It was infamous independent producer Dwain Esper (Maniac) who bought the film from MGM added the short documentary on circus freaks and the brief written text prologue to the beginning of the film. MGM and Irving Thalberg were basically ashamed to have this film in their vaults and allowed Esper to cheaply buy the film from them and take prints of the film on the road to show them in un-licensed movie theaters and auditoriums during the late 30's and early 40's.

The text pro-logue which remains as part of the film has been mistakenly credited as part of the original film many times (and even unfortunately in the otherwise wonderful review of the film by Janesbit). It seems to almost apologize to the audience for the exploitative and shocking elements of the picture and was probably put in place to appease community censors. It's an unnecessary and an overly obvious exploitive device. The original running time of the film was just under 62 minutes.

The film was banned shortly after it's release in 1932 (The Hayes Code had just gone into effect) and by the late 30's the only way to see it was in un-licensed theaters that would show programs of exploitation films to adult only crowds. (Famous films of this type included films like Reefer Madness and Child Bride). Many prints of the film which later showed up on television in the late 50's were severely cut. It was very difficult to see an uncut print of the film until it was released in the 1980's on video. And that release did not include the short documentary on circus freaks which often preceded the film during it's road-show days. Recently it was released on DVD.

In 1932, Variety called Freaks a lavishly produced effort but felt the acting was sub-par and the love story too fantastic and bizarre for audiences to enjoy. You would not watch the film today and consider it lavishly produced.

Browning's career never recovered from Freaks. MGM was embarrassed by the film. It was a few years before Browning worked again and never regularly. (He retired out of the business in the late 1930's after making three more films including: Mark of the Vampire,(recently reviewed here) and the quite good, Devil Doll, 1936.) It's interesting to note that several directors hurt their careers with controversial films. Two other well-known examples (and there are many) are Michael Powell (Peeping Tom) and Orson Welles (whose Citizen Kane enraged William Randolph Hearst who partially succeeded in having Welles' black-balled in Hollywood –Welle's Magnificent Ambersons was re-edited by the studio when he had been sent to South America to work on a documentary now known as It's All True.). In the late 60's and the 70's several directors careers were actually STARTED by making controversial films—times had thankfully changed.


‘Freaks' is set backstage at a one-ring traveling European circus. A modest circus which includes trapeze artists, a strong man, animal trainer and clowns, and more Freaks than even better known circus'of the day had ( such as Ringling Brothers). The ‘Freaks' in this 1932 film were portrayed by actual circus performers and not be actors being made into their characters by costumes or special effects. What you see in the film are real 'Freaks', and they include: what were known as pin-heads (Josephine/ Joseph), midgets (Tiny Harry Earles, Daisy Earles Angelo Rossitto), bearded ladies, human skeletons, a man born with out arms or legs known as The Human Torso (Prince Randian), a man born without legs known as The Living Half Boy (Johnny Eck) and the Hilton Sisters (siamese twins who were featured in the much more exploitative Chained for Life several years later). The Hilton sisters were perhaps the most well known and longest living pair of Siamese Twins, attached to each other since Birth. Some of these people might look too fantastic and bizarre in the film, and you may think it must somehow be faked. . . but it wasn't.


After a brief teaser of an opening in which something horrifying and shocking is seen by an crowd of people but not by us, the film flash-backs to introduce us to characters and tell us a story.

We meet Hans (the little person who is one of the stars of the circus) and his little person girlfriend Frieda who is rejected by Hans when the ‘normal' and beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) takes a liking to him. She is pretending to like him, because she and her boy-friend, the normal strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor) have learned that Hans is related to royalty and is about to inherit a fortune. They plot for Cleopatra to marry Hans and then kill him for his money.

This means that the trapeze artist must be accepted as part of the family of Freaks. During the wedding ceremony however, Cleopatra gets drunk and she humiliates Hans. This upsets the good natured Freaks. Hans, even with the humiliation is head over heels in love with the beautiful and normal Cleopatra and won't listen to what his friends are telling him. He also won't listen to Frieda, the women who really loves him either. He begins to get very sick because Cleo and the Hercules are poisoning him. Later it is discovered that Cleo and Hercules are plotting to kill Hans for his inheritance.

The famous finale of the film can be compared to the finales of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and even Taxi Driver. An explosion of revenge filled violence takes place. In the case of Freaks, it is not a gory violence but it is full of atmospheric and nightmarish images. Images which are actually pretty illogical, but unforgettable and spine-tingling.

The climax of the film was very rare for it's time as well. Unlike most early sound films in which the end of the film is usually a talky scene set in an interior set, this film's climax takes place in an ‘exterior set' and visuals, not dialogue dominate. Visuals like the armless, legless torso, squirming through mud with a knife between his teeth that you won't ever forget.

The studio did insist on a brief almost ‘happy ending' epilogue, but you can easily forgive the film for this.

Most will respond to it's nightmarish images and be affected by the film's still powerful and disturbing climax. Most will think about the child-like beauty in particular of the Pin-heads who are shown in the film as delicate wonderful people.

It remains one of the finest and most disturbing horror films ever made.


The film is dated in many regards and you will notice some of the acting in the film is not very good. A couple of the little people actors are trying a bit too hard to speak clearly to be understood which gives their performances a rather wooden feel. The villains of the film are melodramatically over-the top and quite hiss-able. This was pretty much the accepted and expected style of melodrama's and horror pictures and stage shows of the day. When watching older films I certainly hope you are able to appreciate the limitations they were made under and the styles of their time which influenced them.

However, the over-all effect of the film must be considered.

During the film we meet all of the Freaks. We see them perform some impressive tricks. We also are introduced to them as unique but very warm and sympathetic human beings. We might be somewhat repulsed with the deformities these people have and we might feel uncomfortable gawking at these people–but Browning and his script-writers show us the characters as people–not merely Freaks.

In fact most of the ‘normal' people in the film are actually the ‘Freaks'. Cruel, cold and inhuman.

This makes the revenge climax of the picture all the more horrifying and disturbing. We do not see these people as just Freaks or monsters, we see them as warm human beings who have learned to accept who they are and make the best of what God and nature gave them. They must now fight evil and avenge wrongs done to them by doing some terrible but perhaps justified things.

The advance publicity for the film as it was being released worked against it and meant that people who had never even seen the film were petrified and upset by it. Then, when it was banned and later censored, film audiences were robbed of seeing a unique film.

It's also remarkable what the film is able to do in just 64 minutes. The average length of main attraction films throughout the 1930's was 75 minutes. Going to the movies meant you saw some coming attractions, a chapter in an ongoing serial, a cartoon, a film short (Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, etc. etc.) a newsreel, what was once called a B movie (usually 65 minutes or less in length) and then the main feature. For a dime or at the best movie palaces for a quarter, you were treated to over 4 hours of entertainment. No one had televisions in their homes. Some theaters also had live programs which might include performances by a big band, appearances by movie stars, or popular regional entertainers. The number of people attending movie theaters on a weekly basis was proportional the amount of people who watch television today. Main features might last several weeks in the theater if they were very popular but the b pictures, shorts, and cartoons, serials and news reels would change.

It's difficult to imagine the impact this film had on audiences in its day. The elements of the film which now seem dated, were fresh and it's climax even more shocking and disturbing to it's audience then the finale' of Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch or Saw and Hostel were to the audiences which first saw them.

Today, very few are truly repulsed and disturbed by gruesome films brutality, gory sadism and torture murders have been delivered accompanies by witty quipster lines.  Remember, when Freaks was released audience members were fainting during screenings of Dracula and Frankenstein and some scenes in King Kong were cut due to their shocking violence. It's not surprising then, that Freaks was banned, shown to an adult audiences only in un-licensed theaters, and then later censored.


I am particularly delighted that this essay is actually a part of 2 separate write-offs. Originally I was writing this a part of a write-off for horror films and then was told of a write-off going on dealing with censored and banned entertainment. What I was writing and FREAKS fits perfectly into both of these write-offs and so it is part of both write offs which are both occurring all day today and involve some of the finest writers you'll find on epinions. I hope you will spend some time reading the work of my fellow write-off participants.


I believe some material that is available is inappropriate for children or disturbing and upsetting to many people, and ratings while very problematic are necessary. I do not like the fact however that ratings are often used to promote a form of censorship, particularly in the United States. The double standards that exist are confusing and hypocritical.

I am completely against the banning of any artistic work. We must be careful in how we label and restrict access to film, music, art, theatre and literature, and we must also make sure that works are not censored or banned. I am not talking about works in which people or animals are purposefully injured, maimed or killed against their will or while they are drugged for the entertainment of others, however.

In the case of a film like FREAKS, for instance, consider that circus freaks were often mistreated and abused as well as exploited and used to make money from curios crowds who did not consider how politically incorrect the displaying of people with birth defects and abnormalities truly was. Freaks, the film , showed these disabled people as human beings with feelings which few had seen or even considered ever before, while at the same time exploiting them within the contexts of a melodramatic horror film.

It couldn't, wouldn't and probably shouldn't be a film that could made today– however it WAS made nearly 70 years ago.

Thanks for allowing me to explain my thoughts and opinions.

Now please read what many other fine writers are writing about in today's write-offs

SCARY/HORROR WRITE OFF which is in celebration of jenni1396 ‘s one full year here at epinions (Happy Anniversary !!!) and includes the following participants:

arpoet, beawriter,
bpotter1, charlenep,
ChrisJarmick, cntaur5,
Darkmistress, Debbie26,
jenni1396, mellkinwa,
PacBayStat, phineaskc,

THE CENSORSHIP WRITE-OFF Organized and brought to us by
Pamela - Phineaskc and Angela - Angelabar
will include the contributions by the following:

Lagavulin, Rcarte2000, Jennjoy
Jankp, Brendamh , Hhassell99
Telefrog, ChrisJarmick, Bupkiss
Mellkinwa, Eplovejoy , lkvanvoorhis
bwyckoff1, scmrak , Hawgwyld
Phineaskc, Angelabar

2010 NOTE:  A couple of references have been updated and you might have been directed here from Talyseon's Rocky Horror write-off meaning this piece is officially part of 3 write-offs.  Now go rent one of the most enduring horror classics of them all.  


Christopher Jarmick,is the author of The Glass Coccon with Serena F. Holder a steamy suspense thriller which is now available (glasscocoon@hotmail for details).

Original portions of this review Copyright© Christopher J. Jarmick 2001. The above work is protected by international copyright law.

Recommend this product? Yes

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