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Friday, October 3, 2014

Filme Friday: Freaks (1932)

A couple of weeks ago, I promised a new series called Filme Friday where I'll review at least one German film each month.  This is my first review, and while "Freaks" isn't actually a German film, it's a classic, perfect for this month, and there is German spoken in it.


Freaks 1932
(source: amazon.com)

I think I first saw the movie "Freaks" around when I started college.  I've always been a horror junkie (it just wasn't a Saturday night without seeing "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" on SNICK) and wanted to see where it all started.  Somehow, I came across what some people consider a cult film.  I decided to review it for two reasons:  First, it's October and this is considered a horror film.  Second, "American Horror Story: Freak Show" premieres October 8 and will almost definitely use "Freaks" as inspiration.

Be sure I'll have something to write about this show too (source: hypable.com)


The movie "Freaks" may have lost some of its shock value over time.  Not only have there been many disturbing and unbelievable things shown in horror films, but society has also changed.  We are more likely to accept and try to understand those who are different, either because they are born that way or because they choose to be.  There are still oddities, but when it comes to humans, they aren't really put on display anymore unless they choose to be.  Many people are into body modification and alter how they look with tattoos, piercings, and implants.  So, while the idea of a freak show still clearly fascinates us (see American Horror Story), the characters are less shocking than when the film came out in 1932.

The main plot involves Hans, a dwarf in circus who is engaged to Frieda, another dwarf.  While Frieda loves Hans, Hans has feelings for the beautiful trapeze artist Cleo, who is not a freak.  This love triangle causes suspicion among the freaks that Cleo does not love Hans, but is instead interested in the gifts he gives her.  Without spoiling the story, viewers are treated to an insight of the personal lives of the performers, and many truths are revealed.

Even though this film is usually labeled as a horror film, I'm not sure it should be.  It's really almost a genre of its own.  There's romance in the main plot and several of the subplots.  I was particularly intrigued by the subplot of how Violet is affected by her conjoined twin Daisy being engaged to one of the circus clowns.  I plan on watching "Chained for Life", a movie based on the real lives of Daisy and Violet.



There is also plenty of drama in this film.  How can you not expect that with at least one love triangle?  The level of drama only increases as the story continues.

The jokes aren't perfectly executed, but there are some great one-liners.  I love when Josephine Joseph, the half-man/half-woman gives Hercules a flirtatious look and Roscoe comments, "I think she likes you, but he don't."  There isn't much comedy in the movie, and it's pretty dark in general, but there are funny moments.

Lastly, the film has plenty of mystery and intrigue.  The viewer spends the entire movie waiting to see what people were so shocked by in the introduction's sideshow.  And it's impossible not to be fascinated seeing some of the freaks performing what would be simple tasks for others.  At one point, Prince Randian, the Human Torso, rolls a cigarette (not shown in the final cut), takes out a match, lights the match, and lights the cigarette, all with just his mouth.  Several others in the cast are missing limbs and it is shown how they compensate.


I guess I can see where the horror element comes in at the end.  Unlike many other horror movies, the gruesome part is done off camera (though, it seems like these parts were cut due to complaints by initial audiences), which leaves it to the imagination.  That's a method that can almost be more terrifying if done right.  It is a suspenseful moment, but it doesn't elicit the usual fear, possibly because the viewer almost feels like the victim deserves the fate.

The acting is not wonderful, but considering that some of the cast were not experienced actors, that's understandable.  I also wish the movie explored some of the other characters in more detail.  Again, some of this may have ended up on the cutting room floor.  One of the most interesting things about the movie is that it used real people, not special effects, and reclaimed the word "freaks" as something good.  The "Freaks" Wikipedia page lists the cast and has links to pages about some of them.  You can read about most of them and see that in many ways they really were the characters they were portraying.

As for the German in the movie, Hans and Freida both speak German a number of times.  The version I saw had no subtitles, but context and tone makes it pretty clear what's generally being said.  These characters were played by Harry Doll Earles (aka Kurt Fritz Schneider) and Daisy Doll Earles (aka Hilda Emma Schneider), two of four dwarf siblings born in Stolpen Germany.  These four siblings became known as The Doll Family.

(source: Wikipedia)

Harry and another sister, Grace, first performed in sideshows in Germany and were brought to the United States in 1914 where they lived with the family of Bert W. Earles, an American entrepreneur who included them in his 101 Ranch Wild West Show.  Later, Daisy and Tiny, the fourth sibling, joined their brother and sister in this act.  The Doll Family toured with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and acted in several movies.  Harry, Daisy, and Tiny all appeared in "Freaks" with the latter having a small role, and all 4 were munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz."  Harry was one of the Lollipop Guild members who first welcomes Dorothy.  Perhaps I'll write about them more in a later post.

Harry and Daisy as Hans and Frieda in "Freaks" (source: http://thesilverscreenaffair.blogspot.com)

Harry (right) as part of the Lollipop Guild (source: Wikipedia)

I really like the movie "Freaks."  I'm tempted to watch the 2007 remake "Freakshow", but I'm not sure how it will compare to the classic.  If you're interested, you can watch Freaks free at archive.org.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes things that are a little strange and twisted.  And if you plan on watching season 4 of "American Horror Story," this film is a must-see.



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