One Of Us
by Dave Roper
You can try to describe it, but it sounds faintly ridiculous:-
“There’s this woman and she pretends to like this circus dwarf so she can get his money. Then the rest of the circus freaks realise what she’s up to, so they turn her into a circus freak, sort of a chicken-woman with feathers”
Okay, maybe a little more than “faintly”, but you get the idea. It doesn’t sound like an iconic horror film – but it is. Tod Browning was white hot off the back of Universal’s Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula and was invited to choose another project. He went for Freaks and it pretty much wrecked his career.
Browning decided to make a film all about circus freaks and he used real-life freaks to populate this fascinating and disturbing tale. The living torso, the Siamese twins, the human skeleton, the half woman – half man, the bearded lady – all were held up affectionately rather than for ridicule. Rather than taking the approach that many would, of inviting us to look in horror upon these accursed individuals, they are presented sympathetically and (most importantly) as the dignified human beings they are, with lives, feelings, personalities and affections.
Olga Baclanova’s trapeze artist, Cleopatra (companion to the circus strongman) gets wind of the circus midget being a man of financial means and so pretends to be sweet on him in order to get at his wealth. She winds up getting drunk at their wedding reception and telling the rest of the circus freaks exactly what she thinks of them, at which point she discovers, to her cost, that they will stick together and exact from her a terrible revenge. We do not see their actual attack on her, only the aftermath, as she sits in a pen, now an exhibit in the freak show rather than a performer in the circus.
Browning stages the sequence breathtakingly – as Cleopatra realises that the circus troop are turning on her, she runs into the trees and they take off after her, including a man who has no legs, so runs on his hands, with a knife gripped between his teeth. We know she is going to get her comeuppance and our sympathies are entirely with the circus performers. We don’t necessarily relish her fate, but there is a sense of it making things “right”. Freaks fared terribly at the box office and Browning was all but finished as a director, but he put a singular vision and his own desired story on screen and in the process gives us something at once poignant, affecting and horrifying. As is so often the case, the “monsters” are the “normal” people – the strongman and trapeze artist, whilst the freaks of the title are the nice guys, standing up for one of their own.