Dir. Tod Browning
Hollywood’s transitional period from silents to talkies witnessed many talents either adapt and evolve or recede into oblivion, and it was also when Tod Browning, often touted as a trailblazer in American horror film, spawned fantastically reimagined productions that owed their enhanced nightmarish effect greatly to the coming of sound. An experienced carnival sideshow performer himself, Browning populated his wonderland with troupers, eccentrics, pariahs, and as in the case of his best-known work Dracula (1931), monsters. Spearheading the 1930s surge of gothic horrors, the Bela Lugosi star vehicle bears the discernible influence of the Expressionist style and often encloses the characters in surroundings indicative of operatic grandeur. In some of those theatrically staged scenes, certain long shots inside the castle or abbey look like simplified storybook illustrations.
Compared with this fanciful romanticism, Freaks (1932), which sparked such outrage it nearly wrecked the director’s career, feels less mythical, yet equally eerie, and definitely more intimate. Like his previous silent The Show (1927), it shines a spotlight on circus actors and their backstage lives. In both cases the central conflict is motivated by greed, but Freaks carries a stronger whiff of melancholy and greater moral import. Framed as a once-upon-a-time flashback, the story begins with a casual tour into the offstage array of circus wagons. During this, Browning takes a snapshot of each member showcasing their distinctive faculties, without caricaturing them. Having enlisted real-life “freaks,” he pits their physical deformities against the moral degradation of able-bodied antagonists, while condemning the latter. Here, indeed, the code of freaks is the norm transgressed by these antagonists, for which they pay the price—with a beautiful acrobat getting tarred-and-feathered into a shriek-inducing creature.
The tide turns during the scene of the wedding feast for the acrobat Cleo and Hans, the midget she’s after for money, where the circus’ peculiar individualities are all gathered in one place and pose a perceived threat to the scheming duo, Cleo and her strongman lover. The alternating close-ups of the woman and Hans’ friends as they chant “We accept her” are at once bone-chilling and weirdly poignant. From there, Browning builds an increasingly ominous mood by doling out close-up shots of the freaks spying on the newlywed poisoning her husband. When the drama climaxes in a collective act of vengeance or defiance, it’s perhaps one of the most unforgettable, most effectively executed outbursts that the history of horror film has ever seen.