ByJim Mcleod, writer at
Jim Mcleod

For Christsake, I know I shouldn’t be but I’m in absolute stitches – I’ve been reading articles on a well known search-engine written about this amazing film and I’m really belly-laughing? Let’s see if I can find something suitable. Oay– how about:

“Gobble gobble...accept her...” “I think she likes you...but he don’t...” “They’re going to make you one of them, my peacock...” And of course, probably the most well known: HORROR WEBSITE FREAKS “One of us, one of us!” – a quote which has been used in many films since – particularly The Player (Robert Altman), The Dreamers (Bernado Bertolucci), most recently in The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)– heck, I even used it myself in one of my stage plays (The Crumps – when Lindsey Crump gives birth to her baby Stanley which subsequently turns out to be a plastic, don’t ask we haven’t got all day). Freaks, damn what a crazy film, nasty but bloody brilliant! When released it was seen as exploitative, horrifying perhaps rather than terrifying and such was the backlash that there was apparently no choice but to ban it. It’s influenced me definitely in my writing of short stories (particularly in my collection Within A Forest Dark) and in the aforementioned The Crumps (both a short film and stage play). Directed by Tod Browning in 1932, I remember seeing it late one evening on one of those dodgy cable channels when I was a kid. The trailer for this very strange flickering black & white movie was a woman staring into a box, observing something hidden, something forbidden, terrifying – a horror, which she was told, was once a very beautiful and talented trapeze artist who had now become...something altogether very different (a ‘feathered hen’!). My interest was certainly piqued – especially when I then read that the film had been banned around the world for more than thirty years and then was ‘rediscovered’ and screened at the Cannes Film Festival of 1962. It was even said that following one of the test screenings in 1932, one woman claimed that the film had made her suffer a miscarriage. What was so special, so ‘horrifying’ about this film that could cause such an outrage? Browning himself had been a member of a travelling circus as a youth and he certainly brought some of his own personal experiences to the films he made – particularly The Unholy Three (1925, starring Lon Chaney) and then in Freaks. He was used to working with ‘frog boys’, ‘bearded ladies’, ‘Fiji mermaids’, ‘pinheads’ and the ilk and Freaks is certainly full of such ‘sideshow curiosities’ that he called family. With so many personal demons too (alcoholism, never fully recovering from a car-crash to mention only two) Browning was the ideal choice for directing the somewhat bizarre script. Set in a travelling-circus, Freaks tells the story of the Cleopatra, a beautiful and talented trapeze artist who is in love with Hercules, the circus strong-man. A midget, Hans is infatuated with Cleopatra however, and gives her expensive gifts and money which she doesn’t do anything to rebuff – she loves the attention (I guess the moral message of the film really, where she is beautiful her soul is ugly – whereas the ‘freaks’ are ugly but beautiful inside). This angers Frieda, another midget, who was once engaged to Hans but believes that Cleopatra is only mocking him. Inadvertently, Frieda tells Cleopatra that Hans is about to come into a large inheritance and sets the wheels in motion for a horrific finale. Cleopatra and Hercules hatch a plan where she agrees to marry Hans but will then poison him so when he dies, she will inherit all his money and do a runner. At the wedding feast however, as the ‘freaks’ finally accept Cleopatra as one of their own, she rebels and openly mocks them (“You dirty slimy freaks”). When a doctor examines the ailing Hans, and he discovers the tiny midget is being poisoned, Cleopatra and Hercules’ plan is revealed. Furious, and as the thunder and lightning strike, the ‘freaks’ castrate Hercules (by the armless and legless slithering Prince Randian – a scene which is sometimes cut as it is quite graphic for the time) and Cleopatra is transformed into the hideous ‘feathered hen’ with deformed hands, no legs, an uglified face, in fact no better than a squawking imbecile. “One of us indeed”, but what a crazy crazy film. If you haven’t seen Freaks I certainly recommend you checking it out – you won’t be disappointed!


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