See, in my family, “freak” is a term of playful endearment. Or, at least, I hope it is. Way back when in the great depression of the 1930s, the label was used as a way to define those who were misaligned with society and its expectations, rather than the colloquial, local use myself and my family have for it where we just mean you’re a bit weird for not wanting a lager in the sun. Tod Browning must have had some odd fascination with the theme of the freak. He had directed them before, in Dracula. Those pangs of a circus obsession were present in The Unknown. This is merely an inevitable combination of his two streams of thought, pooling together in a film that barely lasts an hour, yet caused such sparks of rage and controversy at its time. Freaks is relatively tame by modern standards, but we should not downplay the importance.
As a narrative, Browning displays a class divide and a knockback at eugenics. These are bold themes to handle at such a defining moment in filmmaking. When directors were still finding their footing with enjoyable, exciting bits of entertainment, to take heavy themes and crush them into an hour is indeed the work of a freak. But we are better off thanks to Browning and his vision. He is a pioneer of the deeply-rooted meanings we find and discuss within a film, and it is easy to see why. Even during production, his message of classism and disgust of eugenics bubbled to the surface. MGM separated the cast into two cafeterias. They were working as equals but were not treated as such by the producers who were disgusted at their inclusion. It is the old hat theories taking a flaky stance against the acceptable, modern standard Browning was offering.
Freaks has a deeper understanding of some contemporary films wishing to depict disability and the divide it can cause. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) wishes to take advantage of Hans (Harry Earles), a midget with a large fortune. She toys with his emotions, leads him on, all for a slice of the inheritance he has. To some extent, it is a back and forth that would work regardless of location, disability or character, but it is what Browning can offer with such themes and thoughts that make for the most compelling moments. Cleopatra chastises and mocks those around her, but Browning slips her into their shoes, the cycle is complete, and it is narratively fulfilling to see a character get their just desserts in a mortifying way.
Is Freaks a horror? To some degree, yes. It is not the usual monster romp or chilling procession of villains, but a look at the evil in humanity. Whatever Cleopatra’s intentions were, the humiliation Hans feels is permanent and scarring. He has come to terms with his physical ailments but now must combat the emotional turmoil too. His heartbreak is bruising and it is through his desire to be accepted as human that he ends up most hurt of all. That’s all we want, isn’t it? How hard can that be? Browning suggests it is the hardest part of living, especially for the oppressed and divided. He’s not far from the truth, and while his narrative could use some work, his representation is impressive and even moving. It’s the horror of life that audiences of the time feared, the realisation that their kneejerk reaction, not the work of Browning, was producing the horror they were hurt by.