Tod Browning’s controversial pre-code horror film Freaks was heavily cut in the USA, and remained banned in the UK until 1963. Since then the BBFC has reviewed the film’s certification, revised their previous alterations, and have reissued alternative edits. The latest re-release shall be the first since 2002 to be shown in cinemas nationwide.
At a travelling circus act, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) begins to flirt with dwarf performer Hans (Harry Earles). His fiancée Frieda (portrayed by real-life sister Daisy Earles) is understandably jealous, and is concerned Cleopatra is only mocking him. When Cleopatra and her lover Hercules (Henry Victor) discover Hans has a large fortune, they plan for Cleopatra to marry him, and then to poison him to collect the money.
The strength of the film’s immortalised status lies with the film’s production quality, and its direction under Browning. Browning had wanted to make this film from his own experiences as a circus performer, and this passion resonates on screen. The film’s focus on the performer’s culture, their packed living spaces, and their tight community conveys this alternative livelihood as one that is wholly separate from the nine-to-five crowd.
Its shock factor still remains intact, notably during the uncomfortable ritualistic chant “Gooble gobble, one of us!” during the wedding scene, and Cleopatra’s body modification in the film’s epilogue. The shocking moments derive from the film’s paradoxical politics. It has exhibitionist moments sparsely used throughout its narrative; notably the close-up of The Living Torso smoking a cigarette in mid-conversation. The film’s focal rhetoric was to be on the community away from the circus acts, yet Browning has moments like this where he appears unable to utilise them in any other fashion.
This reissue has a further epilogue where greater detail of Hans and Frieda’s relationship is revealed. It is noteworthy as a bittersweet closure that carries many sociocultural connotations of ethics, in viewing the Other and intimacy. It is a shame this reissue did not have the infamous Hercules climax; one known for being too harrowing even upon its initial cut.
Fans of Freaks will be delighted to see this return to cinemas in a newer edit, and witness Browning’s final studio film in this classic horror-cum-melodrama. 83 years on, the film still retains its shock, its intrigue and its cult status as a genre unto itself.
Freaks is released nationwide on 12th June 2015.