The success of Dracula offered Browning a long leash for his return to MGM, where head of production Irving Thalberg (who produced many of Browning’s Lon Chaney collaborations) impressed upon the director that he should “out-horror” the Universal monster movies with a more ambitious version of the circus films for which he was known. Initially conceived as a follow-up to The Unholy Three, Freaks tells the doomed love story of Hans (Harry Earles), a moneyed circus performer with dwarfism manipulated into marriage with a gold-digging trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova), to the suspicion of his former fiancée and fellow performers. From its original conception as an exceedingly disturbing horror film, pulled from distribution shortly after its release, to its revival in the 1960s as an avant-garde work in the tradition of Buñuel, Freaks has survived numerous appropriations as genre trailblazer and curio on the art- and exploitation-house circuits. Shifting from finely shaded, dreamlike chiaroscuro to documentary pragmatism, the film remains a transgressive, unnerving work pitched somewhere between daringly compassionate and—despite its infamous “one of us” chant—charged with the very horrors it denounces.
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