The Greatest Stories Ever Told

The 2010 Paramount Summer Film Classics

Crime Pursued by Vengeance: 'Freaks'

Vengeance is a dish best served by Prince Randian, the armless, legless human torso who wriggles, mud-encrusted but for the killing blade clutched between his teeth, and squirms his way beneath the wheels of a benighted and rainswept circus caravan in pursuit of the damned, doomed, duplicitous trapeze artist Cleopatra. It's a scene – just a single shot, really – that may well be the single best illustration in all of cinema of this sinister urge polite society has dubbed vengeance. Khan, I'm afraid, doesn't even come close. When Tod Browning adapted Tod Robbins' short fiction "Spurs" for MGM's Irving Thalberg in 1932, he did so after a stellar run of films with the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney. He was, by that time, MGM's go-to director for the outre, the bizarre, the unholy (Three), but Thalberg hadn't bargained for Browning's cynical, twisted vision of a ménage à trois from hell. Against the studio's better if misguided judgment, on a viscerally disturbing level of verisimilitude not seen before or since, Browning cast real-life human oddities as his cast of "freaks," including the celebrated conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, microcephalic "pinhead" Schlitze, human skeleton Peter Robinson, and pint-sized star Harry Earles of Germany's famed "Doll Family" as the gullible, forlorn sideshow little person who is cuckolded by the truly vile Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. The much-referenced wedding party sequence, during which Cleopatra is accepted into the freaks' coterie with boisterous, drunken good cheer and cries of "Gabba, gabba, we accept you, one of us, one of us!" is a triumph of cringey discomfort (and fodder, many years later, for the Ramones). But it's not until Cleopatra's ruse is finally uncovered that the true nightmare commences. Thalberg, MGM, and – reportedly – test audiences were aghast, resulting in massive cuts to Browning's version (one of which was, ironically, the castration of Hercules) and a wholesale ban on the screening of the film for decades. The film's final image, revealing the result of the freaks' pseudo-surgical vengeance on Cleopatra, is a shock to the system that no amount of time can soften and asks the enduring question of what it means to be human and what it means to be a "freak."

Freaks screens Wednesday, June 30, at 7pm, and Thursday, July 1, at 8:50pm.

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