Freaks (1932) Movie Review – 31 Days of Halloween

Horror, Drama | 66 Min
  • Director: Tod Browning
  • Actors: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles
  • Writers: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon
  • Producers: Tod Browning, Harry Rapf, Irving Thalberg
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English, French, German
  • Parental: Violence, Peril
  • Horror, Drama | 66 Min

A circus' beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.

Welcome to knockout horror and to another entry into our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature. Yesterday we checked out a horror classic in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from 1960. For the 27th day of October, we are going even further back to 1932.

We are checking out, controversial, horror classic Freaks by Tod Browning. Set against the backdrop of a French traveling circus. Freaks follows the story of a young woman’s attempts to seduce a performer at the circus so that she can murder him and claim his inheritance.

Freaks (1932) Horror Movie Review

This movie proved controversial upon its release due to the use of circus performers who suffered from birth defect and disabilities. It created no small amount of noise and was slammed pretty heavily. Looking at the movie through a modern eye. It is obvious that critics were beyond hasty and unfair with their appraisal of the movie. In reality, Freaks is one of the most effective horror movies of all time and a touching story on top of that.

A Tarnished Legacy

Freaks’ legacy is one of shameful treatment of it’s cast and blatant disregard by critics. From a group of talented actors who weren’t allowed to roam the lot where the movie was filmed. To test screenings that featured viewers literally running out of the screen. This is a movie that had its true magnificence hidden behind a torrent of bullshit and silliness. 

Freaks (1932) Horror Movie Review

Due to the harsh reception and somewhat troubling subject matter. Freaks woefully under performed at the box office. It was all but forgotten. That is until the 1960s when the movie suddenly came to the attention of the European counter culture fandom.

The film was shown at major festivals and gained an entirely new group of fans. It wasn’t long before Freaks was hailed as a lost Hollywood classic. Finally getting the recognition it deserved and becoming a legitimate horror classic that still holds up to this day.

A 60’s Revival

Themes that were originally derided for being Exploitative were re-examined. With critics suddenly praising the movie for its sympathetic portrayal of people with disabilities. The stars of the movie were now seen as talented actors. Rather than simply a group of unfortunate people being taken advantage of. The story at the heart of the movie finally had a chance to stand forward for its complexity and depth rather than for its atypical presentation.

Freaks (1932) Horror Movie Review

Viewers now paid attention to the story, rather than simply disregarding the film for its controversial themes. And people finally appreciated freaks for the fantastic movie that it really is. It is a crying shame that it took so long but that is the story of so many movies that bucked the trend of typical Hollywood movie making. This has been going on since the cinema industry began and still happens now. 

Banned for Years

I first watched Freaks as part of a feature on controversial horror movies. The UK has a bit of a habit of banning movies for little rhyme or reason and Freaks was one of those movies. A channel here decided to show a bunch of these movies as something of a season of counter culture stuff some 25 years ago. And Freaks was one of the highlights along with Straw Dogs and a few others.

Freaks (1932) Horror Movie Review

Watching the movie back then, I was struck by just how scary it still was. Let’s be honest for a second, Freaks leans far more into drama than horror. But time hasn’t done a single thing to erode the brilliant horror imagery on show here. The final scenes of the movie are among the best and most affecting I have ever seen. The fact that the movie is cast in a grey hue with oppressive shadows only furthers just how effective the visuals are. Freaks, as a horror movie, is one of the best. But that doesn’t really do the film justice.

A Touching Drama

At its heart, this movie is a legitimately sympathetic portrayal of people who are differently abled. The characters here aren’t presented as freaks. They are presented as kind people with hopes, dreams, and talent. The only freaks in the movie are the villains and that is what makes it such a powerful film. It is impossible to watch this and not entirely fall for the brilliant cast. They are incredibly likable and the camaraderie between them bursts off the screen.

The cast here were, for the most part, circus performers themselves and you can see the common bond between them. There are plenty of moments where the cast just seem to be enjoying each others company. There is so much chemistry between them that scenes like the “Freaks’ Banquet” feel entirely organic. 

Freaks (1932) Horror Movie Review

The characters here have suffered tremendously at the hands of society and are being exploited every day. People gawk at them and pay money to indulge their curiosities. Despite the fact that these characters are, essentially, the same as everyone else. Just born with differences. It’s a legitimately heart moving, though rather tragic, portrayal and the only people demonised are the ones that shun the characters and the ones who exploit them. The message here was that the characters in Freaks are more “normal” than most of us. 

Fairly Light on the Horror

It’s probably worth me mentioning here, once again, that Freaks is, perhaps, not what you would call a complete horror movie. It is very much an important horror movie but horror by the 1930’s standard is not the same as horror today. Whereas that isn’t such a noteworthy thing with movies that feature classic horror icons like Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula. Freaks presented its horror in a completely different way.

As I said before, it is, predominantly, a drama with a complex story supporting some fantastic moments of genuinely frightening horror. But there are more moments of plot development and simple character interactions than there are scares. You really need to go into the movie with your expectations set.

Freaks (1932) Horror Movie Review

It helps, to some degree, that Freaks is an incredibly short movie. Just over one hour and there is a very good reason for that. Browning had intended the movie to be a 90 minute feature. But once the censors got a hold of it, it was butchered down to what you see now. So for the record, that’s over 20 minutes of the movie lost to time. Such a legitimate tragedy and I can only imagine how scary some of the cut content was. 

Final Thoughts and Score

There’s a lot to say about Freaks for such a short movie. It might not be the most obvious horror movie of all time but it is one of the most important. Freaks shows us the horror of people and society’s expectations of beauty and physical appearance. Its sympathetic portrayal of differently abled people is truly heart warming and the story at the movie’s core is consistently engaging. Though the horror scenes are few and far between, they are among the best in history. A true classic and deserving of being on anyone’s Halloween viewing list.

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