When Hans (Harry Earles), a midget member of a circus freakshow, becomes captivated by the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) she initially toys with him, flirting playfully to spite his midget fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles). Deluded by Cleopatra's attentions, Hans is unaware he's become the subject of a cruel joke in the circus community. Nowhere is the cruelty more pronounced than with Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules (Henry Victor), whose flirtation shifts from the sadistic to the murderous when Frieda lets slip that Hans has inherited a fortune. Cleopatra marries the beguiled Hans, then sets about slowly poisoning him. The freak community have rumbled the pair's plan, however, and set about exacting a terrible revenge.
Director Tod Browning had himself been a member of a circus - from aged 16, in 1898, he worked as a clown and contortionist. In 1915, he moved into film, working first as an actor with - then as an assistant to - DW Griffith. He was soon directing himself. He came back to circus themes with his 1925 silent The Unholy Three which starred Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist, co-starred Harry Earles and featured a strongman called Hercules. His next collaboration with Chaney, The Unknown, also focused on carnival themes, with the star playing an apparently armless and legless knife-thrower. After Dracula (1931), Browning returned to his favoured themes most overtly with Freaks, a film billed as a "HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION" and based on a contemporary short magazine story by Tod Robbins called 'Spurs' (the tone of which was shifted for the film).
The film was so unusual that audiences reacted with dismay and horror, and accusations of exploitation were levelled at the studio, MGM. The film was essentially shelved and, in the UK, remained banned until it was granted an X-certificate release in 1963. Sure the film is horrifying, but not in a sensationalist manner and this certificate was unwarranted. The intervening years have seen the rating reduced, to a 15 in the 90s and to, finally, a 12 in the arguably more enlightened early 00s. About time too.
The real "freaks" in the cast of Browning's film - midgets, dwarves, Johnny Eck the 'Half Boy', Prince Radian the 'Living Torso', Frances O'Connor the 'Armless Girl', the Siamese twins - are presented frankly, with ordinary personalities. They are not presented as monsters: this is what was potentially most disturbing to audiences, who could only rationalise such people in terms of their spectacular monstrosity. Even the pinheads (microcephalics) are simply child-like, not subhuman. And even the humour, about marriage complications for the Siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) for instance, doesn't ridicule. Other freak-based humour is gentle, such as when the bearded lady (Roderick) has a baby daughter and Phrozo the clown (Ford) exclaims "Aah, and it's going to have a beard!".
Freaks is both fascinating and entertaining. Although it's flawed - the plot lurches across the short, one-hour running time - the film works well as a genuine horror film, in terms of its chilling atmosphere and fearful moments. This horror mounts at the denouement, when the freaks exact their revenge during a stormy night, calmly observing those who have done them wrong ("offend one and you offend them all" is their code) before moving in for 'the kill'.