Calling Freaks a horror movie would actually mistakenly categorize and limit the film, which is itself an anomaly—a freak, if you will.
I’m not the first person to remark that it’s part revenge fantasy (an important text in the genesis of the “revenge film” genre), part heartwarming dramatization, part kinky Pre-Code exploitation. As I re-watched it the other day, it occurred to me that Tod Browning’s film constructs itself as a sideshow, with a director surrogate figure, the carnival barker, providing a prologue and frame story centered around a major reveal at the end.
As many of you may know, director Tod Browning did have a background in circus clowning and contortionist feats which makes the “step right up” hype spiel at the beginning even more connected to him. Even though there’s an audience in the movie, we can’t escape the feeling that this guy is talking to us, the non-diegetic audience.
In other words, the fourth wall is shaky from the beginning and it stays that way.
Which brings me to the idea that Freaks is a great instance of the “cinema of attractions” rearing its head in the midst of narrative Hollywood. This term “cinema of attractions,” coined by the critic and scholar Tom Gunning, has come to characterize the era of newborn motion pictures which often operated in a presentational manner rather than a representational manner (I totally recommend Gunning’s writings on this).
In other words, if these early movies could talk, they wouldn’t say, “Get absorbed in the plot and identify with the characters.” They’d said, “Holy sh*t, have look at this!” That is, they intended to thrill, shock, and spellbind audiences in a way that often directly acknowledged the viewer. If there was a plot, you could tell that it was just building up to some kind of privileged “money shot” (like the close-up of a lady’s ankle in The Gay Shoe Clerk). In other words, spectacle was the name of the game.
Freaks doesn’t have much of a narrative. It’s a pretty short film, but even for its barely-over-an-hour runtime, the plot feels stretched thin. As Irving Thalberg said when he read the script, “I asked for something horrible. It’s horrible.” Let’s face it, you don’t go to Freaks for well-balanced story-telling. You rush to the theater to gawp at real life anatomical abnormalities. In other words, Freaks harkens back to the sideshow attraction quality of cinema.
And yet it also brings together two strands or bloodlines of that early cinema: research and spectacle. Browning documents the unusual bodies of the freaks and thus fufills the research in reality component of the Lumière Brothers’ films, while also presenting these bodies as a spectacle, something which magician Meliès pursued without end. Jean-Luc Godard once said that he made his films as “research in the form of a spectacle.” I would argue that Freaks is the opposite. A spectacle which actually turns out to be a kind of documentation, research, loving scrutiny.
This shot of the lovely Frances O’Connor, for instance, contains all the “wow” factor of a magic trick, but, situated as it is within an unremarkable dinner scene, we also realize that this woman eats like this every day of her life. We come to Freaks to gawk, but we leave with an understanding of the ways being born with a physical difference affects daily existence. At its best, Freaks is mundane, not sensationalized. Spectacular because of its ordinariness.
Time to Shine
Freaks animates an unprecedentedly varied ensemble cast with small vignettes that pull focus onto the strengths and gifts of each character. As I revisited Freaks this last time, Browning also impressed me with how he worked to emphasize the unique movement patterns of his unusual stars. I particularly appreciate how he used a ground-height dolly shot to capture the capering grace of Johnny Eck, the “Half Boy,” as he “walks” on his hands underneath a circus caravan—silhouetted by flashes of lightening.
Schlizte, on the other hand, lacked the dynamic travelling movements of Johnny Eck, but Browning gives him almost as many medium shots and medium close-ups as leading lady Olga Baclanova! And with good reason, for Schlitze lights up the screen. He’s fantastically photogenic, bubbling over with the kind of unihibited joy that few professional actors can project. It’s easy to project sadness, but happiness is hard. Not for Schlitze, though.
One scene that will forever stick in my memory, the proposal with the Hilton Sisters (the cool Hilton sisters, not those rich freak-shows who own hotels), the beautiful and very talented conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet, provides an instance of bizarrely tender comedy. As the fiancé kisses Violet, Daisy, who’s been doing her best under the circumstances to read unobtrusively, closes her eyes and smiles as she feels this apparently quite enjoyable intimacy. We, the viewer, also share in this sublime cuteness.
I can only describe this humor as a strange love child of Cronenberg and Lubitsch. The connectivity of the bodies provokes an eruption of giggles by virtue of its foreignness to the majority of viewers. And yet, the subtle sexiness of the vicarious experience, of something wonderful shared with a close friend, infuses what could be a punchline with warmth.
Haven’t you ever had a dear friend or family member who confided in you so much that you could almost feel their memories and relive their flashbacks? Don’t all sisters communicate their dramas and receive each other’s emotions, to some extent? The universality of this feeling elevates the joke above the “freak show” physicality that it might immediately suggest. The audience also partakes in this girlish complicity and connects to the sisters with a bond of sympathy, not flesh.
Who You Calling Freak?
Seriously, watch Freaks again and check out how many shots reveal the oppressed characters just looking towards the camera, if not at it. Peeping through windows. Glaring at off-screen characters. Peering up from a hiding place. A few examples:
Often lob-sided, strangely framed, or partially obscured by bars or shadows, these shots disrupt screen space and attack the eye of the viewer. The compositions make us increasingly aware of being looked at. Yep, we’re back to that shaky fourth wall that the film pushes at from the carnival barker at the beginning.
However, this time, the gaze of the downtrodden characters threatens us much more.
In the end, how do you react to “freaks” presented at a sideshow? Why, you look at them. You gawp at them through a peep hole, a partition, bars. Whether you get to feast your eyes or merely catch a glimpse, you’re throwing your gaze over and onto something.
To this day, audiences watch Freaks in order to gape at the unusual bodies presented therein, but, Browning turns the tables on us. The “freaks,” the subjects of the spectacle empower themselves to look back. No passive objects of scrutiny, they return our gaze with pride and menace in these jarring shots.
In fact, it might almost be said that they’re looking over the barrier of the screen and of time to study us. What is a freak after all? As the prologue-spouting showman of the beginning reminds us, but for an accident of birth, any anatomically normal person could be one of them. I’ll go one step further: isn’t the desire to see freaks on parade pretty freaky in and of itself?
The withering stares of the cast remind us of the extent to which ordinary film viewers harbor a germ of sadism and perversity in their love of seeing. When the voyeur gets looked at, in return, he blushes. He realizes his own absurdity. In this case, the characters look at us and we become the freaks.
Moreover, to whom does the unbearable Cleopatra actually deliver her tirade at the wedding feast? In her long, shrill rampage, we don’t see anyone but her, isolated, railing in the direction of the camera. Our and the camera’s point of view fuses with the perspective of the wedding guests. In other words, it’s us she’s calling freaks.
A throwback to the cinema of attractions, Browning’s Freaks plays to the audience in order to shock us, but not just for idle thrills, but rather for a more legitimate purpose. The questions palpitate in the air, “What if you were one of us? What if you already are?”
The spectacle, the ostensible freaks of the title, turns on the spectator and reverses their positions.
Formally, the prevalence of looking shots and manipulations of perspective mirror the plot of the film. Just as Cleopatra, who’d scorned and abused the freaks, transforms into the horrific chicken woman, the viewer, lured in by the promise of peering at carnival abnormalities, must endure the accusatory stares of these fully-realized people. The attractions tie into, and echo, a narrative direction in a rather salient, border-line “meta” manner.
While Freaks does harken back to the so-called primitive attraction-driven cinema, the movie also looks forward to a more aggressive kind of spectacle—a delicate balance of identification, wow factor, and uncomfortable viewer acknowledgement that later cinema (Hitchcock and Godard come to mind) exploited and mined.
Then again, you could have guessed the movie was going to be revolutionary from the opening titles, when a hand rips through from behind the movie. The humanity of the film reaches through and tears away at the diegetic divider. It’s a startling acknowledgement of the film’s illusion, even if it does take place during the credits.
You’re not allowed to numb-out here, Browning seems to tell us. You’re not just going to watch. Something might be watching you. The great thing is, Browning doesn’t make us squirm with at the sight of the freaks. He makes us squirm when we feel like we are one of them, that we’ve traded places.
Gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble!