FREAKS (1932)
Director: Tod Browning
Warner Home Video

This big studio (in this case, MGM) answer to the success of the Universal horror series became one of the most controversial films ever made, causing public and critical outcry for its use of real-life circus freaks. In the 1930s, MGM eventually dropped FREAKS from theatrical distribution, after which it was picked up by Dwain Esper (MANIAC) and given the exploitation roadshow treatment, further elevating its notorious reputation. A revival in arthouses and drive-ins in the 1960s, as well as the "midnight movie" circuit brought it to a new culture and a new generation, and then it was largely unseen until its debut on home video in the mid 1980s. Now, as the rights of the film have reverted to Warner Home Video, they have unleashed a special edition DVD that is better than anyone could have expected.

The real freaks that appear in the trappings of a traveling circus include Olga Roderick, the bearded lady; Johnny Eck, the man with only half a torso; bird girl Koo Coo; Josephine-Joseph, the half-man, half-woman; Randian, the armless, legless living torso; human skeleton Pete Robinson; midgets; pinheads; dwarfs; and the well-known Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins (who would later star in their own film, CHAINED FOR LIFE in 1950). But the story centers on Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful but ruthless trapeze artist who seduces and marries midget Hans (Harry Earles) in a humiliating wedding ceremony, against the wishes of his wiser same-sized companion Frieda (played by his real-life sister Daisy Earles). Hans is actually wealthy, and Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules (Henry Victor) plan a cunning scheme to poison Hans and grab a hold of his money. When the other "special" circus people learn what the selfish couple plan to do, they rally around Hans, and enact a wicked revenge on the two. Legendary dwarf actor Angelo Rossitto has a prominent role, leading the rebellion, and lovely Leila Hyams (as Venus) and the underrated character actor Wallace ford (as clown performer Phroso) are a nice, romantically involved couple who are sympathetic to the freaks' plight.

Based on the short story "Spurs" by Ted Robbins and originally intended as a project for Lon Chaney Sr. (who had just passed away), FREAKS was directed by the man behind DRACULA, Tod Browning, and the sensational nature of the film and its lackluster reception helped in the downfall of his career. Browning (who actually ran away and joined a circus as a boy) nonetheless delivered an unforgettable movie, and though there are no standout performances, the large ensemble cast is very charismatic. Although it can be placed in a category with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, FREAKS is not really a horror film nor a study in abnormality, but rather a taut morality play in which people who have handicaps and have been frowned upon eventually triumph over evil. Running only a little over an hour, it remains a landmark film and one unlike anything from a major studio since.

The full frame transfer for FREAKS has excellent contrast and clarity, with texture being quite vivid. Blemishes are limited to some specs and spots here and there, but the source print is in overall excellent condition. There is some softness and picture grain noticeable, but it is never too bad. Black levels are deep, while whites appear stable. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is very good for a vintage film, with little background hiss or other audible glitches, and the dialog is clear and well rendered (well, except for when the heavily-accented Harry Earles talks!). Warner has also supplied optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

Supplements include a commentary track by author David J. Skal (who calls it "the ultimate cult movie"). He supplies a lot of information not only on the cast and director, but also on the lesser players in the film. His discussion is extremely well-researched, including quotes from some of the participants and bits from authentic reviews from the time of the film's release. He also reveals dialog and scenes that were never shot due to the censor, as well as other interesting factoids. Skal also participates in the featurette, "Freaks: Sideshow Cinema," which actually runs a little over an hour. There are also interviews with sideshow performers/historians, as well as actor Jerry Maren who acted with both Harry Earles and Angelo Rossitto. This is more of a documentary than a featurette, and presents an excellent special on the film, discussing every aspect of it, and singling out each of the main "freaks" one by one, telling us more about their lives. Aside from Skal, circus historian Todd Robbins gives us the most interesting information, and obviously knows this subject well. Also included is the preachy "scroll" prologue that was tacked on for the film's re-release, as well as some alternate endings. Don't get too excited: these endings are just trimmed down from the one seen in the film, and although they have different closing titles, they offer no unseen footage. Skal again narrates this footage, but even more fascinating, he makes mention of a would-be alternative finish that would contain a truly nasty fate for the character of Hercules! (George R. Reis)