That Freaks remains classified as a horror
film is not a disservice to the film's subject matter but rather
it demonstrates the breadth of the genre. Just as science fiction
often uses the future to examine issues of the present, horror
uses the unknown and unfamiliar to examine ourselves. Freaks
pushes this one step further, using real-life oddities instead
of monsters, directly challenging the viewer in a way not possible
with imagined monsters and grotesques.
Even the title forces the viewer to look beyond
its immediate connotations. The real "freaks" of the film are,
of course, not the sideshow freaks but two of the "normal" circus
performers (not unintentionally named Hercules and Cleopatra)
who plot against the diminutive Hans after learning of his family
The displacing of the term "freaks" is made clear
in the oft-cited wedding feast scene when the various performers
put on their acts for Cleopatra, culminating in the famous "gooble
gobble...we accept her...one of us" refrain. This is the first
time we actually see the sideshow performers perform for an audience,
but by this point in the film the viewer isn't shocked by the
performers but by Cleopatra's reaction to them.
The film's most celebrated scene, however, is one
of the final ones, when the entire sideshow troupe enacts their
revenge on Hercules and Cleopatra during a torrential rainstorm.
It is this scene where Browning draws heaviest on his horror background,
crafting a nightmarish atmosphere that leaves a lasting impression
on anyone that sees it.
Warner Bros.'s new DVD offers a number of extras
including a scripted commentary by film historian David J. Skal
and a great feature-length documentary, Freaks: Sideshow Cinema.
Both the commentary and the documentary are more historical in
nature than analytical of the film itself, but they should both
be welcome additions for fans of the film. Also included is a
short feature on the various alternate endings to Freaks,
and the original "special message prologue" that preceded the
film in theatres.