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