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A blog for poetry, prose, and pop culture.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Movie Time: Rewind: Freaks

Hey all,

Welcome to October's installment of the Rewind, where I turn back the clock to pick a classic film from before my birth year, 1976. This was an especially tough month, as I had two picks I wanted to do. In the end, I decided that it is almost Halloween, and I should go with a horror movie. It should be said that I am not a huge fan of the horror genre, I don't really enjoy scary movies or horror films. That being said, there are some films that should be seen.

In terms of the classics, actors like Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney, Jr, Bela Legosi, and Boris Karloff's original monster movies are must see films. The original Wolf-Man, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Dracula are important to the history of the horror genre. The point of this column isn't always to pick the easy films though, that is why for this month I picked a personal favorite, MGM's 1932 counter culture classic, Freaks.

Freaks is a horror story about a group of carnival performers who are "freaks." Actual sideshow attractions like Peter Robinson ("the living skeleton"); Olga Roderick ("the bearded lady"); Frances O'Connor and Martha Morris ("armless wonders"); and the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. There are also several microcephalics who appear in the film (and are referred to as "pinheads"), namely Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress mainly due to incontinence. Also featured were the intersexual Josephine Joseph, her/his divided gender running down the right and left side of her body; Johnny Eck, the legless man; the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as The Human Torso, Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, who suffered from Virchow-Seckel syndrome which is known as bird-headed dwarfism.

This group of people are led by Hans (Harry Earles) a sideshow midget who has recently come into a large inheritance. He is in love with the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) the trapeze artist. She agrees to marry him, despite her obvious disgust, to get at his money. At their wedding reception, all the "freaks" pass around a massive goblet of wine and proclaim her (in the famous statement from the film) "One of Us. One of Us." They accept her as a fellow freak despite being "normal" and this scares her. In a drunken rant, she mocks the troupe and admits to having an affair with the circus strongman, Hercules (played by Henry Victor.)

Despite being humiliated Hans stays with Cleopatra, who is slowly poisoning him to get to his inheritance and run away with Hercules. One of the "freaks" overhears the two plotting against Hans and tells him and the rest of the troupe of Cleopatra's intentions.In the films climatic scene, the "freaks" attack the pair with guns and knives, horrifically mutilating them. In the end, they are both forced to become that which they hated. Cleopatra, once so beautiful, now a legless, tongueless, human chicken woman. In the end Hans returns to fellow sideshow midget Frieda (played by Daisy Earles) to find the love he so wanted.

The film plays on our preconceived notions that "freaks" are the inherent bad guys, when in truth the most horrible people are the normal ones in the film. There are many slice of life moments throughout the film, showing the deformed members of the troupe involved in the daily aspects of a normal life. Thus re-enforcing that they are as normal as you or I.

The movie was directed and produced by Tod Browning, who the year before had achieved fame with Dracula. Reaction to this film was so intense at the time, that he had trouble finding work afterword. At screenings of the film, people were so appalled at what they had seen that much of the film was cut being deemed to graphic, including the castration scene of strongman Hercules. The film was deemed so graphic, that in the UK is wasn't allowed to be shown for over 30 years, the longest ban of any film. The movie was also originally cast with many of MGM's stars at the time, including Myrna Loy, Victor McLagen and Jean Harlow, but they refused to do the film after reading the script and having to co-star with "freaks." One woman at a test screening even claimed that the film had caused her to miscarry her baby!

Browning had spent time in his youth working for an actual circus ans based some of the film around his expediences. It was also very loosely adapted from a story called Spurs by Clarence Robbins. When screenwriter Willis Goldbeck was given the task of adapting it, it was with the instruction that the script be "horrible." Between the adaptation and the theatrical cuts in the film, the only real recognizable parts from the book is the marriage of a midget and a beautiful woman and the wedding feast. Ironically, several days after turning in the script, Goldbeck was summoned to the producers office where studio boss Irving Thalberg proclaimed the script horrible, his head in his hands.

Freaks is a powerful movie that is creepy even after watching it today. To see some of these poor people dealing with the maladies they had to suffer through is tough to watch. Then to watch as people treat them poorly as a result is even more horrifying. Freaks holds up as one of the truly scariest films I have ever seen, and not because of a ghost or monster, or a chainsaw wielding maniac chasing young girls. Its scary because it IS real, this COULD happen. These are not some guys in makeup trying to scare you, these are real people with real problems. That is scary.

A few final notes on the film, one if you really want to see this movie, check out TCM on Halloween morning and cue up the DVR as they are broadcasting it as part of their Halloween film fest. Also check out the romantic relationship that develops between Hans and fellow midget Frieda. If it looks a little strange that is because it is, they are real life brother and sister. The romance was added as a means to satisfy some of the changes that had to be made to the theatrical cut to give the movie a "happier ending." That's creepy. One of my favorite scenes is when the Human Torso, a man with no arms or legs, draws a cigarette and lights it with a match, using only his tongue. It is incredible! Supposedly in the original cut, he also rolls the cigarette himself, which I find compelling, but footage of that is said to be lost.

Oh, I also added a publicity still from the film showing off most of the cast along with the films movie poster as sort of a bonus. Now you can get a better idea of what you are in for. This movie is a great way to get a little real life scare this Halloween. Check it out, 1932's Freaks, from MGM by Tod Browning.

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