""Gobble-gobble...we accept her...one of us "" goes the haunting chant of Freaks. Yet it would be decades before this widely banned morality play gained acceptance as a cult masterpiece. Tod Browning (1931's Dracula) directs this landmark movie in which the true freaks are not the story's sideshow performers but ""normals"" who mock and abuse them. Browning a former circus contortionist cast real-life sideshow professionals. A living torso who nimbly lights his own cigarette despite having no arms or legs microcepalics (whom the film calls ""pinheads"") - they and others play the big-top troupers who inflict a terrible revenge on a trapeze artist who treats them as subhumans. In 1994 Freaks was selected for the National Film Registry's archive of cinematic treasures.
One of the most famous, most shocking and, for much of its existence, most elusive of cult films, Tod Browning's Freaks remains worthy of its dubious top billing by literary critic Leslie Fiedler as the greatest of all Freak movies. At the centre of the story are two circus midgets, Hans and Frieda (already well known in the 1930s through film and advertising appearances as Harry and Daisy Earles), whose marriage plans are blasted when Hans becomes the target of the aerialist Cleopatra's plot to marry him then kill him off for his money. During what is certainly one of the most notorious scenes in cult film history, the wedding party of freaks ritually embrace Cleopatra as one of us. Through her undisguised horror at this and her gruesome punishment by the freaks, the film bluntly confronts viewers about our awkwardness about different bodies while simultaneously stirring up fear and alarm in familiar horror-movie style. Better known for the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931), Brownings showmanship was equally a product of the circus (he was himself an adolescent contortionist in a travelling show). His meshing of circus and cinema--two dangerous entertainments--produces Freaks' uniquely disquieting effect.Startled and indignant preview audiences forced the producers to add an explanatory foreword to the film but even this crackles with sensationalism as it veers between sideshow-style sympathy and fright warning. None the less, protests and local censorship ensued and the film never reached the mass audience for which it was made. Still, some of the real stars of the midway Ten-in-One shows of the 1920s and 30s (Johnny Eck, Daisy and Violet Hilton the Siamese twins, Prince Randian, the Hindu Living Torso) are showcased here as themselves and it is their undeniably real presence in what is otherwise familiar fictional terrain which is still so provocative. --Helen Stoddart
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