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Warner Home Video presents

Freaks (1932)

"You dirty, slimy freaks! Freaks, freaks, freaks! You fools! Make me one of you, will you?"- Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova)

Stars: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, Henry Victor
Other Stars: Rosco Ates, Daisy Earles, Peter Robinson, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Angelo Rossitto
Director: Tod Browning

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 01h:02m:00s
Release Date: 2004-08-10
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

Modern audiences often find the classic horrors of the 1930s tedious and unfrightening. Tod Browning's Dracula is talky and stagebound, while even Frankenstein has, through familiarity, lost much of its power to shock. But there are still a handful of the films of the Golden Age of Horror that to this day still pack a powerful punch, and at the head of them is Browning's followup film for MGM, Freaks. Heavily censored and outright banned for decades, it's still a powerful picture that's highly disturbing at many times.

The entire film takes place on the sideshow of a carnival. Midget Hans (Harry Earles) is engaged to fellow little person Frieda (Daisy Earles), but he is enamored of fading beauty Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze artist. Cleopatra is amused by Hans' attentions, content to accept pricey gifts from him while she romances strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). But when she discovers that Hans is heir to a fortune, Cleopatra hits on a better plan: marry the midget, then murder him to inherit the cash. The sideshow freaks—dwarfs, pinheads, armless and legless people, hermaphrodites and more—initially move to accept Cleopatra as one of them, but her laughing mockery of the freaks and cruelty to Hans lead to the freaks taking a terrible vengeance upon her.

Browning had a carny background, and his treatment of the sideshow populace is highly affectionate. The movie divides neatly into two halves: in the first half, the viewer is initially shocked by the parade of freaks as they appear on the screen, but as we see them go about their lives and loves, they're quickly humanized and given sympathetic treatment. But everything changes at the wedding feast, as the suspicions of the freaks are confirmed by the viciousness of Cleopatra and the unconcealed contempt she displays for her diminuitive new husband. The freaks become aggressively weird with their chants of "gooba-gobble" as they prepare to make her "one of us." This culminates in an unforgettable sequence in the rain and the last ten minutes are chock full of pre-Code mayhem. Browning makes excellent use of the sound of the storm to increase the suspense and heighten the drama of the terrifying pursuit of Cleopatra. Although he hadn't really grasped the use of sound in Dracula the year before, there's a bit more creative sound design on display here, and much more onscreen source music to help keep the up pacing.

Harry Earles had starred with Lon Chaney and Victor McLaglen in Browning's two versions of The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930), and he makes for a highly sympathetic leading man (though he gets only sixth billing, after all five of the "normal" players). Baclanova's portrayal is right on the money, with a conviction that she's smarter than these "dirty slimy freaks". Leila Hyams adequately portrays Venus, an animal trainer, and top-billed Wallace Ford makes for a decent clown, Phroso, who takes it upon himself to protect her from the depredations of Hercules. Unfortunately, the somewhat spindly Henry Victor makes for a rather unconvincing strongman, and this bit of miscasting is the one weak link in the cast.The freaks themselves are all actual sideshow or vaudeville performers, making the best of their bad situation, but their careful treatment doesn't have an exploitative air. Instead, it's like getting a bit of a peek behind the curtain of the darkest carnival.

The pre-Code aspects don't just relate to the finale. There's also a fair amount of unhealthy interest in the sex lives of the freaks, most notably of the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, one of whom appears to respond when the other is kissed. This phenomenon leads to unspoken but unavoidable speculation about other more intimate acts.

Cut to ribbons on release and for years afterwards, there are still significant chunks that appear to have vanished forever, leaving Hercules' attack on the hermaphrodite quite incomprehensible. The commentary helps fill in some of the blanks, since this footage appears to be lost for good. But the original ending, which tempers the impact of the closing shot of Baclanova somewhat, is here reinstated. A monumental money-loser for MGM as a result of all the censorship and banning, it spelled the beginning of the end of Browning's career. Recognized again in the 1960s by the counterculture, and then having fallen again into disrepute in the era of Political Correctness that has all but shut down the sideshow, it's surprising that Warner has chosen to issue this film in such a first-rate edition. But I'm certainly glad that they did.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture is quite attractive. There's moderate flicker, but the print is very attractive, with mild speckling the only other significant defect. Detail and texture are quite nice, as is shadow detail for the most part. The climactic sequence is intentionally only partly legible, illuminated at intervals by flashes of lightning. The restored original epilogue is quite dupey and highly-contrasted, but apparently there was no better source material extant.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is fairly noisy, but the dialogue generally can be made out well enough. The exception is Earles, whose fairly thick German accent is sometimes incomprehensible; one of his lines described in the commentary by Skal is translated quite differently by the closed captions and subtitles ("swill pails" vs. "swiss cheese"). The sound design at the wedding feast and the climax is nonetheless highly effective and nightmarish.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Alternate Endings
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian David Skal
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. "Special Message" prologue
Extras Review: Warner provides a surprisingly jam-packed special edition for this film, making it worth the long wait. Browning's biographer, David Skal, contributes an informative commentary, though it gets somewhat spotty after the wedding feast. It also duplicates a fair amount of the content in the documentary, with some of the same anecdotes recounted by him. That documentary runs 1h:03m:20s, or slightly longer than the feature itself, and provides a very thorough look at the film and its making, with biographical looks at many of the freaks, as well as Browning's career, the dismal history of the picture and its rediscovery. Skal is somewhat limited by the fact that Browning was notoriously private (he never gave a single interview after Freaks, making the biographer's work difficult indeed). But there's more here than one might expect under the circumstances, with supplemental discussion of the film's treatment of the sideshow life provided by past performers in the business.

Some additional material is also included. The 2m:33s prologue tacked on for re-releases, in a vain attempt to help prepare the audiences for what was about to be shown on the screen. Finally, a 5m:56s discussion of the alternate endings of the film provides the original plus two recuts, with comments by Skal, as well as Skal's verbal description of the preview ending, which also appears to be lost. It's hard to imagine what else could possibly have been added, making this the definitive Freaks package. Chaptering is very thorough for such a short picture, with 21 stops. The package design is also first rate, with the original poster art doing double duty as the cover and the picture on the disc. The period art is much superior to the ubiquitous "floating head" covers that grace 99% of all discs.

Extras Grade: A+

Final Comments

A moving and highly disturbing classic, given a superb presentation by Warner. The Residents put it best: "Everyone comes to the Freak Show, but nobody laughs when they leave." Highly recommended.

Mark Zimmer 2004-08-10