Today would have been the 136th birthday of famous horror director Tod Browning. Born on July 12 1880, Browning will be best remembered for his movies such as Dracula, The Unknown and London After Midnight. However his most influential movie, a film that still continues to inspire film and television even today, is a film you have likely never seen: the cult classic, Freaks.
Freaks was released way back in 1932, and told the story of a beautiful circus trapeze artist, Cleopatra, who agrees to marry the leader of the side-show performers, a little person named Hans. But, it's soon revealed that Cleopatra only married Hans for his inheritance and is plotting to murder him (with the help of her lover, strongman Hercules) for the money.
The film — which used actors with real deformities or disabilities — was a controversial release, and the 90-minute original version no longer exists, having been deemed too shocking by the MGM and cut down to just 64 minutes. In addition, the studio was also almost sued by a member of the test audience who claimed the film caused a miscarriage.
Browning was only able to make the film due to the leeway that his success with Dracula allowed him, and also because it was produced during Pre-Code Hollywood, the period before the enforcement of censorship guidelines. But despite this, Freaks tarnished his reputation and his career never fully recovered. Browning directed just four films after Freaks, two of which were uncredited, before retiring early.
However, almost 30 year later, starting in the early 60s, Freaks found popularity once more often being shown at midnight screenings and gaining cult status. Then in 1994 it was added to the United States National Film Registry due it being recognized as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The films cultural significance has been proven time and time again with the vast number of movies, tv series, video clips and even books influenced by it:
- 1974 film The Mutations, also known as The Freakmaker
- 1989 video clip for U2 song All I Want Is You
- A 1995 episode of The X-Files, "Humbug"
- James Herbert's 1999 novel Others
- The 2003 HBO series Carnivale
- 2007 remake Freakshow
Finally, last year Freaks was the major influence for the fourth season of American Horror Story. Much like the 1932 film, the series also used actors with real disabilities or deformities, as well as paying homage to iconic characters from the original, such as Schlitzie, Pinhead Pip and Pinhead Zip, with the characters Pepper and Salty. Like Freaks, AHS: Freak Show also sought to make audiences rethink the way they treat those with disabilities, zoning in on their everyday life, rather than concentrating purely on their performance on the stage.
While Freaks may have ruined Browning's reputation way back in 1932, there are also few films from the era which continue to have such an influence. Happy birthday Tod Browning, horror fans everywhere salute your contribution to the genre.
Have you seen Tod Browning's Freaks?
Source: Horror film history