Of the many colorful reviews Tod Browning's Freaks prompted upon its 1932 release, few captured the film's unique quality as aptly as these lines from The Boston Herald: "It is the sort of thing that, once seen, lurks in the dark places of the mind, cropping up every so often with a dourful persistence." Oddly enough, the Herald didn't mean this as an endorsement. In fact, Freaks received little praise upon its release; it pleased neither critics nor audiences, virtually ended Browning's career, got banned in Britain, prompted MGM to remove its logo from the prints, and disappeared for decades. Then, with a dourful persistence, it cropped up as a cult item and midnight-movie fixture in the '60s and '70s, enjoying a second life in an era during which the term "freak" had fewer negative connotations.
Had more people seen it in the '30s, that term might have lost its stigma earlier. Much of what makes Freaks so unsettling comes from its refusal to treat its stars as, well, freaks. A circus vet, having worked as a clown and a contortionist, Browning assembled a cast of real-life sideshow performers for his cast. Previously, he'd helped establish the American horror film by working with Lon Chaney and directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula. For Freaks, he decided to skip the illusion, and he filled the screen with a real-life bearded lady, a human skeleton, a bird lady, dwarfs, microcephalics (or, less charitably, "pinheads"), and "half boy" Johnny Eck, whose body had no lower half, but who walks gracefully on his hands.
Though Browning never ignores his subjects' potential for shock value, he also treats them as a big, functional family. He leaves the real ugliness for the "normal" people, namely a statuesque acrobat (Olga Baclanova) and a strongman (Henry Victor) who conspire to seduce little person Harry Earles away from his tiny fiancée Daisy Earles (in real life, Harry's sister) in an effort to steal his fortune. When the freaks get wise to their scheme, however, Baclanova and Victor's own fortunes take a turn for the worse and the film starts burrowing into the mind's dark places. Never comfortable with talkies, Browning uses spare dialogue, nonsense chants, eerie whistles, and unforgettable visuals to portray Baclanova and Earles' wedding feast, the acrobat's rejection of her new family, and the dire consequences of that rejection.
The DVD's audio commentary and making-of documentary (both anchored by erudite horror scholar David J. Skal) reveal that most of Freaks' stars expressed mixed feelings about the film in general, and Browning in particular. Perhaps they felt exploited by a finale that turns them into monsters, but in its own way, this keeps with the movie's humanization of the abnormal. Betrayed, the sideshow performers look for blood; in this respect, the freak again gets revealed as, like the famous chant goes, "one of us."