This was the film that virtually ended the career of Tod Browning, the director of Dracula (1931) – he only made four more films after this, his last in 1939, with his longstanding career as silent actor and silent/talkies director having been effectively derailed by the controversy his film caused.
Based on Tod Robbins’ 1923 short fiction story Spurs, it was banned in the UK for 30 years, before finally being appreciated on the counter-culture/cult circuit and eventually accepted as a classic of the genre.
And it is still very disturbing – cut from its original running time of 90 minutes to a mere 64, it nevertheless retains a visceral power that remains long after viewing.
We are taken into the disturbing world of the carny from the first scene – a woman, attending a freak show, screams in horror when she sees a (as yet unwitnessed) monstrosity kept in a box. This, the barker informs us, was once a beautiful trapeze artist by the name of Cleopatra, who turned against the freaks with whom she lived and worked – but, as the barker intones, ‘if you betray one of them, you betray them all’.
Browning made the incredibly courageous decision to use real travelling circus performers with deformities (drawn from his own experiences on the road during his early years), and it was this that repulsed the audiences of the time, before Hays Code censorship in the US. However, the freaks are decent, gentle and caring, and it is the ‘normal’ humans who are vile, at least Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) are, for it is they who conspire to have Cleopatra ‘fall in love’ and marry midget Hans (Harry Earles) for his inheritance money, before attempting to poison him then take the loot. Hans’ true love Frieda (Daisy Earles) sees straight through the scheme, however, and tries to warn Hans that he is simply being used but, believing himself to be finally happy and Cleopatra genuinely in love with him, he is having none of it, and the pair are married, in what is the film’s tour-de-force, a wedding feast with the ‘happy couple’ and freaks in attendance who sing the haunting ‘one of us, one of us, we accept her, one of us’, to Cleopatra’s horror. Then, things start to go horribly wrong…
Years, decades ahead of its time, you will never forget this film. Watch it here.