By Stephanie Star Smith
April 2, 2003
Mother Nature can be quite harsh, but she's got nothing on humanity in the cruelty department.
Tod Browning's film was considered shocking for its time. It was also seen as exploiting its titular oddities, a charge which Browning denied and which is proved false upon viewing the finished product. Because the sideshow performers tagged with the title epithet are far more humane than any of the so-called "normal" people they encounter. The film also makes evident Browning's respect for his subjects. He never treats them as anything other than human, with the same hopes and fears and dreams and emotions as any of the rest of us. That in itself prevents Freaks from ever being exploitive.
But where's the hook for the modern audience?
In this age of serial killers, genocidal wars and terrorism, the shock factor that existed for '30s audiences is greatly dissipated. But it's what remains that makes Freaks worth seeking out. The tale of greed, deception and vengeance is an engrossing one, and it contains a twist ending that really is a twist. Although one expects those who wronged the freaks to get their just desserts, the fate reserved for the most egregious villain is chilling. I won't spoil it here, but suffice to say it's a visual you won't soon forget.
There's also the opportunity to see one of the great early directors at work. Freaks was one of the last films Browning ever made, even though he lived to the ripe old age of 80. To see the work of the man who helmed so many silent classics is always a treat, and Freaks stands, with Dracula and his films with Lon Chaney, Sr, as landmark films.
But probably the best reason to watch Freaks is the eponymous performers themselves. There's an undeniable fascination in watching these disabled actors go about everyday tasks. But Browning treats the freaks with dignity and compassion, and soon one pays less attention to how they live than who they are. The freaks bring an emotional weight to the proceedings that is as engaging as it is profound, and seeing how these people, so badly used by society at large, band together and care for and about each other is very moving.
In short, Freaks is a fascinating study of humanity in all its variations, and a classic illustration of the old saws about judging a book by its cover and how superficial the physically beautiful can truly be.