“Freaks” (1932), being shown free of charge on Halloween night at Chapman University, is one of the most controversial horror flicks ever to skulk out of Hollywood.
The bizarre film, about scheming circus stars and vengeful carnival “freaks,” was directed for MGM by Tod Browning. Irving Thalberg, the studio’s wonder-boy producer, thought it could be as popular as Browning’s earlier “Dracula.”
But critics, and the first meager audiences, were appalled. The New York Times called “Freaks” grotesque and said it should have premiered at Manhattan’s Medical Center instead of at the Rialto.
Whereupon Thalberg yanked it out of circulation and said he had a huge “cleaning job” on his hands. Thalberg renamed the film “Nature’s Mistakes” and reissued it with publicity that asked “What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?” and “Do Siamese Twins Make Love?”
That didn’t work either. Eventually, “Freaks” faded away and even was banned in a few European countries, including England.
It resurfaced a full 30 years later at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was described as a surreal masterpiece. It since has been credited with influencing Fellini (especially in “La Strada”) and Bergman (“The Naked Night”), among others.
“Freaks” is a wild ride, but it’s not the monster-trip some say it is. It is macabre and disturbing, but Browning chose to humanize the deformed characters at the movie’s shadowy center, not to demonize them.
What is terrifying is their response to the treachery of the “normal” folks who exploit them. When circus-babe Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) get their comeuppance for trying to murder midget Hans (Harry Earles) and take his money, it’s creepy but curiously satisfying.
Browning gets us to sympathize with his characters--a collection of dwarfs, “pinheads,” “human worms,” bearded ladies and Siamese twins recruited from various carnivals--by showing how ordinary their world is, once you’ve adjusted to their appearance. Some of the film’s passages are almost clinical as we watch them overcome handicaps. Browning also makes these characters more noble than Hercules and Cleopatra; the “freaks” wouldn’t think of turning on a friend.
The movie is supposed to be seen as a fable. And it does have its terrifying aspects, especially its knife-flashing finale. Browning photographed it at night, in a strong rainstorm. It is dark and strange as the “freaks” crawl through the mud, determined to savage their victims.
The program at Chapman isn’t all so heavy. Three Halloween-oriented cartoons from the late 1920s and early ‘30s (Felix the Cat in “Felix Woos Whoopee,” Betty Boop in “Snow White” and Walt Disney’s “The Skeleton Dance”) also will be shown.
* A free Halloween program of Tod Browning’s “Freaks” begins at 7 p.m. in room 208 of the Argyros Forum at Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. (714) 744-7018.