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Tod Browning
Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova
Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon

A circus' beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers but his deformed friends discover she only wants to marry him for his inheritance and seek revenge.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English LPCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 62 min.
Price: $69.95
Release Date: 10/17/2023
Available Only As Part of 3-Film “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers” Collection

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian David J. Skal
• “The Sideshow Cinema” Documentary
• Tod Robbins’s Spurs Read by David J. Skal
• 1947 Freaks Prologue
• Alternate Endings
• 2019 Ticklish Business Podcast
• “One of Us” Still Gallery
• Booklet


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-SVS SB12-NSD 12" 400-watt Sealed Box Subwoofer


Freaks: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1932)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 15, 2023)

One of the most controversial films ever made, I suspect many more people have heard of Tod Browning’s 1932 horror flick Freaks than have seen it. David Bowie even mentioned it in the 1974 song “Diamond Dogs”.

That track offered the line “Dressed like a priest you was/Tod Browning’s freak you was”. With a reputation like that, how could I resist the urge to give it a look?

Set in a traveling circus, the story introduces many “freaks” as well as non-deformed humans, but only a few of them really matter to the tale. Among those without prominent physical flaws, we find two good folks - Phroso the Clown (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams) - and two nasty people - strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).

Little person Hans (Harry Earles) intends to marry similarly diminutive Frieda (Daisy Earles), but he clearly pines for the lovely Cleo. She recognizes this and teases him to her own end.

Cleo pretends to care about Hans because he gives her nice gifts, and when she finds out that he inherited a fortune, she decides to pursue him more aggressively. Cleo schemes to marry Harry and then poison him, take his money, and hook up with Hercules.

In addition to that story, some minor subplots emerge. We see the burgeoning romance between Phroso and Venus, and we also inspect the dual love affairs maintained by conjoined twins Violet and Daisy (Violet and Daisy Hilton). However, the film mostly highlights either the various forms of deformities or the Harry/Cleo thread and its ramifications.

Frankly, that doesn’t deliver much of a story, and Freaks suffers for it. Apparently critics at the time saw it as little more than an exploitative shocker, and at times it becomes difficult to defend it as anything other than that.

Make no mistake - though we may be more “enlightened” now than we were 91 years ago, the sight of the deformed people remains startling and somewhat upsetting. I wish I could say that I didn’t feel disturbed at their conditions, but that wouldn’t be true.

It was an intriguing move to cast true “freaks” in the roles instead of “normal” folks transformed via makeup ala Lon Chaney, but it definitely opened Browning up to charges of exploitation that remain hard to dispel. Granted, he does present them as fairly good people with a strong bond and code of honor.

I won’t reveal what happens when they discover Cleo’s treachery, but it ain’t pretty. The film doesn’t simplify matters to the point where “freak” equals good person and “normal” human equals bad - Cleo and Hercules are really the only sinister folks in the tale - but Browning does allow us to see the sideshow characters as fairly real.

Still, it’s hard to get past the concept of exploitation, partially due to the weakness of the story. This isn’t something like The Best Years of Our Lives in which a soldier deformed by war plays a significant role.

In that flick, the wounded sailor Homer Parrish became an important part in telling the tale of what battle can do physically and psychologically. Yeah, Freaks presents some elements like that, but instead it seems most concerned with gawking at the unusual characters.

One side effect that comes with casting actual deformed people means that we find many amateurs in the film, and their acting lives up - or down - to that status. Granted, the professional performers in Freaks don’t present Oscar-worthy work themselves, as they usually come across as very broad and over-the-top.

Some of that stems from the acting styles of the era, but not all - or even most - of it. Instead, they simply couldn’t act.

However, the professionals definitely fare better than the amateurs. Already hampered with squeaky voices and German accents, it becomes difficult to understand what Harry and Daisy Earles say most of the time, and their stilted and awkward delivery of the lines doesn’t help. Those problems go down the line, as none of the sideshow characters feature good performances.

Nonetheless, some interesting moments occur. I particularly like the simple and understated scene in Daisy gets kissed by a suitor and her conjoined twin feels it.

Violet’s reaction seems much more expressive than I would expect. The film’s climax also works well, as the enraged “freaks” do their duty to protect one of their own.

Unfortunately, that powerful sequence leads into the film’s most laughable scene. The movie cuts from the “freaks” revenge to the sideshow character discussed but not revealed at the flick’s start.

We now get to see this person, and Browning expects us to feel horrified, I suppose. However, the reveal exposes such an absurd character that what should bring the movie’s more disturbing moment becomes its funniest.

Issues like that abound in Freaks. An inconsistent film, it suffers from a thin plot, poor acting, and a shaky sense of morality.

However, it does produce an intriguing and unusual view of circus life, so this definitely isn’t your standard flick like The Greatest Show on Earth. Freaks never becomes an enjoyable movie, but it seems different and interesting enough to merit a look.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus A-

Freaks appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Given the film’s age, this became a strong presentation.

Sharpness largely worked well. Occasional instances of softness materialized, but these seemed inherent in the source, and they occurred infrequently enough to leave us with a mostly well-defined image.

No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects popped up, and I saw no edge haloes. Grain felt appropriate and print flaws remained absent.

Blacks came across as deep and tight, while low-light shots offered appealing clarity. I felt pleased with this solid scan.

Note that the film’s finale came from a substandard source and offered the disc’s ugliest visuals. This part of the movie suffered from poor contrast, too much brightness and iffy delineation.

However, these issues only impacted about the span from 1:00:26 to 1:01:51. As such, the concerns only marred a tiny portion of the flick’s running time.

I also thought the movie’s LPCM monaural audio of Freaks came across well for a 91-year-old soundtrack. Speech seemed tinny and without warmth, but the lines always remained intelligible and they lacked obvious edginess.

Music played almost no role in the flick. As with many movies of the era, it included little score, so mainly we heard music from practical sources like the performers at the wedding feast.

Like speech, effects sounded thin and without range, but felt more than acceptable for their era. Except for the thunder at the climax, they lacked distortion and appeared fine given their age.

No noise or background distractions occurred. All of this left us with a well-reproduced track for a movie from 1932.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the 2004 DVD? Audio became substantially clearer and lacked the shrill qualities of the DVD’s mix.

Visuals also demonstrated obvious growth, as the Blu-ray looked cleaner, better defined and richer than the DVD. Everything about this presentation blew away what I saw and heard on the old DVD.

The Criterion Blu-ray brings a mix of old and new extras. Also found on the DVD, we start with an audio commentary from Tod Browning biographer David J. Skal. He presents a running, screen-specific discussion of the movie that proves reasonably informative.

Much of the time, Skal goes over biographical details about Browning and the actors as well as material cut or changed in the final film and the varied reactions to it. We also hear a little about the different ways that the “freaks” themselves dealt with the film, as some apparently embraced it while others grew to hate it.

The content itself seems positive, but unfortunately, more than a few instances of dead air mar the presentation. Given the richness of the controversial topic - and the brevity of the film - these become less excusable than usual. Nonetheless, I learned a fair amount about Freaks during this generally useful chat.

From 1947, the Special Message Prologue (2:36) ran with some screenings of Freaks. It sets up a history of malformed people and gives the audience some information about what they’ll see. It’s an interesting historical footnote.

At one hour, three minutes and 30 seconds, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema offers a surprisingly long documentary connected to the film. It presents interviews with Skal, sideshow performers/historians Todd Robbins and Johnny Meah, sideshow performer Jennifer Miller, and actors Mark Povinelli and Jerry Maren.

We learn about the origins of the film and Browning’s path to it, casting the regular humans, perspectives on fascination with different forms of people and the particulars of sideshows, details about the various “freaks”, production notes, reactions to the film and its legacy.

”Sideshow” progresses somewhat oddly when compared to most documentaries of this sort, but it proves very satisfying. The extended discussion of the lives of the “freaks” seems especially fascinating, but the whole thing works nicely.

We get enough about the film’s creation to make those elements satisfactory, and the extra information about the personalities adds nice depth to this fine program.

During the six-minute, eight-second piece Alternate Endings, we don’t get to see any cut material, unfortunately, but Skal provides a good accounting of the film’s various versions. He repeats some of this from the commentary, but he provides a concise elaboration of the specific bits here.

All of the above elements appeared on the DVD, so the remaining content comes new to the 2023 Criterion release. Tod Robbins’s Spurs Read by David J. Skal goes for 47 minutes, 44 seconds and provides an audio-only affair.

A short story published in 1923, Spurs became the source for Freaks. As narrated by Skal, it becomes intriguing to hear the tale and compare it to the Browning film. Expect major differences, as Browning clearly used solely the bones of Spurs for the movie.

One of Us: Portraits from Freaks spans 10 minutes, 34 seconds and delivers a collection of 164 stills that mix publicity elements, ads, movie shots and behind the scenes elements. We get a good compilation.

Another audio-only component, we find a 2019 Ticklish Business podcast. Film editor Kristen Lopez and movie bloggers Drea Clark and Samantha Ellis chat together during this 51-minute, 54-second piece.

Though they touch on some of the movie’s history and production, the discussion mainly offers their views of the film, with an emphasis on the depiction of disabled characters/actors. That element adds an interesting twist and makes this a fairly involving piece.

Finally, we get a booklet with photos, credits and an essay from Farran Smith Nehme. It finishes the package well.

One of the oddest and most notorious films ever made, I cannot call Freaks a good movie, but it undeniably delivers an interesting one. Marred with poor acting and a thin story, it still feels intriguing and unusual enough to make it watchable. The Blu-ray presents good picture and audio as well a nice set of bonus materials. I didn’t much like Freaks, but its historical position means I have to recommend it.

Note that this Criterion Blu-ray of Freaks only appears as part of a three-film collection called “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers”. In addition to Freaks, it also provides 1925’s The Mystic and 1927’s The Unknown.

To rate this film please visit the DVD review of FREAKS

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