Freaks DVD Review
Written by Steve Pattee
DVD released by Warner Bros.
Directed by Todd Browning
Screenplay written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon
1932, Region 1 (NTSC), 62 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on August 10th, 2004
Wallace Ford as Phroso
Leila Hyams as Venus
Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra
Rosco Ates as Roscoe
Henry Victor as Hercules
Harry Earles as Hans
Daisy Earles as Frieda
The circus freaks are a close bunch. Mess with one, you had better be sure you are ready to mess with them all.
When Cleopatra, a “normal” woman, marries Hans, a dwarf, more than a few eyebrows are raised. Especially since Cleo ridicules her new beau. Constantly. And while she is ridiculing her little man, she constantly makes goo-goo eyes at Hercules, the strongman. Something is definitely amiss.
When Hans apparently gets deathly ill from poisoning, the freaks band together to make the guilty parties pay.
And pay they do.
I can’t remember the first time I saw Freaks. It’s one of those movies I’ve seen so often, the times have just blended together. It could have been when I saw it on TV with my sister (followed by Dracula). It could have been when I rented it with my mother (along with Evil Dead). But in the long run, it doesn’t matter. Because each time I watch Freaks, it feels like the first time.
It is that unique.
MGM hired director Tod Browning, coming off Dracula, from Universal to deliver the scariest movie people had ever seen, the likes of which had never been seen before. He succeeded so well that not only did he produce something never seen before, but something the likes of which has never been seen since.
Using real “freaks,” Browning created a movie that not only crossed the line of “normal,” it went back over that line just so it could cross it again. And again. And again.
The documentary, included on the DVD, points out there wasn’t a traveling circus anywhere that had the quantity, or quality, of the freaks Browning got together for the movie. From Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton to Prince Radian, the human torso; from the pinheads, Zip and Pip, to Johnny Eck, the half-boy, Browning chose the cream of the crop. Midgets, dwarves, a bearded woman, a skeleton man — come one, come all, have we got a show for you!
But Freaks is not really a scary movie. Granted, the last 10 minutes or so are incredibly disturbing, as the freaks make their move on those who crossed one of their own, but the first 50 minutes play more like a “Days of Our Lives” of the circus. That’s the beauty of the movie. Instead of seeing the characters as freaks, you see them as people, with the some problems you have. And when they do what they must do at the finale, you find yourself rooting for them and completely creeped out by them at the same time. Admittedly, the story of Freaks is an age-old tale (love, money, revenge), but its execution is well worth the nickel admission.
That said, let’s be honest. Another part of the movie’s appeal is you can openly stare at the actors without fear of guilt. They are, after all, freaks of nature. No matter who you are, or what you think your values are, it is human nature to stare at something different. And Freaks is a movie that has all kinds of different. I admit, not only is Freaks an incredibly good movie, it gives me a chance to sit in the comfort of my own home and watch in amazement as Prince Radian — who has no arms nor legs, just a head and torso — lights, and smokes, a cigarette. And feel completely guilt-free while watching.
A box office bomb and banned for 30 years, Freaks is a movie that, due to its controversial nature, will never be matched.
Video and Audio:
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Freaks has never looked so good. The picture does have noticeable wear, but a movie that is more than 70 years old shouldn't be expected to look like Attack of the Clones. Warner did a wonderful job returning Freaks to a presentable fashion.
The 1.0 monaural sound is a bit high-pitched in some spots, but — like the video looks — this is the best it has ever sounded. There are a few times when the dialogue was a little inaudible, but it is still a great restoration.
At first glance, the disc doesn't seem to have much, but what it does have, it has in spades.
The shining feature of the bunch is the documentary "Freaks: Sideshow Cinema." Running just more than an hour, it is probably one of the best DVD documentaries I've seen. With interviews with David Skal (author of "Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre"), sideshow historians and performers Johnny Meah and Tod Robins, actors Jerry Maren (The Wizard of Oz) and Mark Povinelli, and bearded lady and sideshow performer Jennifer Miller, the documentary covers about every aspect of the film. From casting to production, it as an outstanding feature. It even includes a section on the "freaks" themselves, covering almost all of the curiosities in the movie and their lives both before and after the film was made. The only downside to this wonderful documentary is that it is not longer. But a lot of information is packed into the hour it has.
A commentary by Skal is also included on the disc. The commentary can be skipped for two reasons. The first is most — if not all — of the information is well covered in the documentary. The second is Skal sounds as if he is reading from a prepared script. Skip the commentary and watch the documentary. The doc is not only just as informative, it's has a much less clinical feel.
Also offered is a "Special Message Prologue" which was added to the movie for the theatrical reissue. It is an interesting read for the historical aspect alone. Its obvious intent was to prepare viewers for what the were about to see, and it seems a secondary purpose was for the studio to cover its assets, so to speak, because it seems like it is saying: "Hey, we aren't exploiting them, they are just like you and me. If you think we are exploiting them, you are the one who has the problem." It is definitely worth at least one watch.
Rounding out the features are three alternate endings. The first is not shown, but described by David Skal. Apparently, the footage was either lost or destroyed and was never used because it offended so many people. Three other endings are shown, one of which was restored to the movie presented on the DVD. This is an interesting feature, as it shows the trouble MGM went through just trying to get a satisfactory ending.
While at first glance Freaks may seem like an exploitation film, further views show exploitation couldn't be farther from the truth. This is a must own for any movie fan because of its uniqueness and historical value.