“I must fix your medicine.”
Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is a trapeze artist with the circus. Hans (Harry Earles) is a side show little person who is smitten with the beautiful Cleopatra. Hans rejects Frieda (Daisy Earles), his fiancée, for the regular sized Cleopatra. He lavishes her with money and gifts. When Cleopatra learns of the inheritance that Hans received she decides to marry him to get her hands on it. Cleopatra is also having an affair with the circus strong man Hercules (Henry Victor). Together they plot to kill Hans and keep the money for themselves.
At the wedding reception Cleopatra gets drunk and ends up revealing to Hans that she is having an affair with Hercules. The freaks begin to chant that Cleopatra is being accepted as “one of us”. Hercules, also drunk, begins laughing at Cleopatra. He tells her that they want to make her a freak. She becomes angry and insults everyone calling them freaks and telling them to get out. She then humiliates Hans by parading him around on her shoulders like a child.
During the reception Cleopatra poisons Hans' wine. When he becomes ill Venus (Leila Hyams), one of the performers suspects what is going on and confronts Hercules. The other performers realize what Cleopatra is up to and together they decide that Cleopatra needs to be taught a lesson. She needs to learn what it means to be a side show freak. They need to show her what it’s like to be “one of us”.
“Freaks” was released in pre-code 1932 and was directed by Tod Browning. The story itself is basic. The plot is standard. A woman connives with her lover to marry a man who is getting a substantial inheritance. She then plans to kill her husband and run off with her lover. It’s been done a hundred times. What makes “Freaks” different are the characters. The characters are side show circus performers and the actors portraying them are actual circus performers, known as freaks. The freaks themselves are people. Most of them are regular people who were born with birth defects. The circus is the only way they can make a living and since they are surrounded by others with similar afflictions, the bond they develop is extremely strong.
“Freaks” was originally 90 minutes long. By the time it was finally released it was a mere 64 minutes long. Controversy has surrounded the movie since its inception. The film is almost 90 years old and, for some, it is still unsettling. It was banned in many countries for many years, sometimes decades. The controversy around this movie effectively killed Browning’s career.
More than a horror movie, “Freaks” is a commentary on society. Browning attempts to show the circus performers as every day people that just happen to have physical and/or mental afflictions. He is not looking for sympathy but understanding and acceptance. Unfortunately in 1932 people were not exactly humane and did not possess an abundance of either of those traits.
Perhaps a little too much at the time for audiences to handle, it is more an interesting piece of history now. Since then horror movies have developed into grotesque images of unreal things. Imagination is now the freak. What we think up is worse than anything in real life. We now recognize birth defects for what they are. Health issues that sometimes can be treated and sometimes can not. “Freaks” would have been more drama than horror had it been made today.