And DVD makes another item in my laserdisc collection redundant.
Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of talking horror movies like Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein, MGM's Irving Thalberg asked Dracula's director, Tod Browning, to make something "really horrible". Legend has it that Thalberg, after reading the initial script for Freaks, hung his head and sighed, "Well, I did ask for something horrible..."
The plot itself is pure soap opera set in a circus; the midget Hans falls in love with Cleopatra, a self-centered but statuesque blonde trapeze artist. Discovering that Hans has inherited a fortune, Cleopatra and her true lover, Hercules the strong man, contrive to have Hans marry her so she can slowly poison him. Hans' fellow freaks, however, discover the plot and exact a particularly terrible vengeance during a thunderstorm - a segment in which Browning's love for the grotesque fully comes into play.
Having been told for years how this movie was a landmark horror film, the first thing that will surprise the viewer is how sympathetic the movie is to the title characters. With the exception of a few subordinate characters, the "big people" are an unlikable lot - the braggart Rollo Brothers, the conniving Cleopatra, the vulgar Hercules. It's the freaks who are presented as normal, and when the drunken Cleopatra insults them all during the famous wedding feast scene, her horrible comeuppance becomes not only inevitable, but almost desired by the audience.
Well, perhaps not all audiences. Freaks was a thorn in MGM's side from the very start, excoriated by critics and the public alike. It was eventually taken completely from circulation... until the sixties, when a generation of self-proclaimed "freaks" discovered it anew and took it to their hearts.
A movie over 70 years old, it is inevitable that Freaks is going to show some damage; laudably, this has been kept under control, and though dust speckles are always present, they don't distract from the image, which is grainy in the bright scenes, but also possesses good solid blacks and warm grays... until the tacked-on final scene, featuring the reconciliation of Hans with his similarly small fiancee, where scratches and grain become evident, and the whites really bloom.
There is some flutter evident in the soundtrack, but it remains in the background. Finally, the inclusion of subtitles is a blessing, as German-born star Harry Earles, as Hans, can get quite hard to understand when he is excited.
Film historian David J. Skal gives an informative but rather spotty commentary track. Much of this information is repeated in a hour-long documentary Freaks: the Sideshow Cinema, in which he is joined by Todd Robbins and Johnny Meah, themselves "Sideshow Performers/ Historians" and several contemporary sideshow attractions.
There is also a text scroll from a theatrical reissue which attempts to prepare audiences for what they are about to see, and a recreation of three different endings with which MGM tried to salvage whatever they could from their investment. Unfortunately, any elements for the original, more horrific ending have long been destroyed, rendering any attempt to recreate it (apparently) not worth trying. But Skal does, at least, tell us about it, which will have to do until somebody invents that time machine, goes back, and rescues the director's cut of this movie.
Dr. Freex, 8/18/2004