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DVD reviewed by Donald Melanson

August 27 , 2004 | Film critic Andrew Sarris famously called Freaks "one of the most compassionate films ever made." That is certainly true, but it's also one of the most misunderstood films ever made. Audiences and critics alike rejected it at the time of its release, dismissing it as nothing more than an exploitative geek show — it was even banned for decades in parts of the world. But now many consider it to be Browning's finest film, and one of the greatest American movies.

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 fortune.

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 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.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack. He also writes about movies on his film blog.

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