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Review - Freaks (DVD-2005)
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Freaks (DVD-2005)

Warner Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

Tod Browning is best known to most filmgoers as the director of the 1931 film classic Dracula with Bela Lugosi. As iconic as that film is, Browning’s most daring venture, and some would say, his greatest, is his 1932 follow-up horror film Freaks which broke new ground in its depiction of circus freaks by using real-life side-show performers.

MGM produced the controversial film which came on the heels of the various classic horror films, both silent and sound, which had enjoyed universal popularity. Nowadays, film depictions of people with missing limbs, physical anomalies or medical variations are less apt to provide lasting shock and more apt to reveal underlying commonality and individual uniqueness and worth. Here too, Freaks is groundbreaking in its depiction of extraordinary individuals.

But Freaks would prove to be too much for audiences in its initial release. It provoked unprecedented criticism, not only due to its shocking subject matter, but also due to its immense commercial failure upon release. Just as the box-office failure of Griffith’s masterful Intolerance would haunt that director for the rest of his career, so too would Freaks essentially wreck director Browning’s career. As if this were not enough, showings of the film were banned for several decades. It was not until the 1960’s that Freaks (along with Disney’s Fantasia) would be rediscovered by audiences).

While Freaks remains controversial, it is regarded by many as a masterpiece. It may remain for audiences to decide whether the side-show performers are being exploited or treated with compassion in this story of two so-called normal individuals who try to take advantage of the “freaks”. But watching this DVD’s print of the film coupled with the documentary and extras, the humane/compassionate argument wins easily. Film historian David Skal provides an outstanding commentary and hosts the excellent and extremely informative documentary which takes you behind the scenes of the film and into the real lives of the fascinating performers. In addition, the film’s long-unseen prologue and alternate endings are included on the DVD.

One thing is certain, whether or not Freaks rises to quite the level of great films like Intolerance, Phantom of the Opera, Metropolis, Frankenstein, or Dracula, the film itself is mesmerizing. Like the classics which came before it, Freaks once seen, is a film you will never forget.

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski/ Celluloid Dreams

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