Originally created 08/19/04

1932's 'Freaks' poised to shock anew



Ladies and gentlemen, boy and girls! Step right up - yes, you, right there - and feast your unbelieving eyes on the greatest, most notorious sideshow in all of cinema. Tod Browning's banned 1932 film, the one and only Freaks - is now available on a spectacular DVD for your viewing pleasure (or displeasure).

Freaks was MGM's answer to Universal's first forays into horror, including Frankenstein and Browning's Dracula. The studio wanted to make the most horrifying movie ever.

"There's a story that when the screenwriter brought the script to (MGM head) Irving Thalberg and he read it, he kind of dropped his head into his hands and said, 'Well, I asked for something horrible, and I guess I got it,'" film historian David Skal recounts in a documentary on the DVD (Warner, $19.97).

What Thalberg got was a bizarre morality play set behind the scenes of a traveling circus sideshow, whose physically deformed performers exact revenge on the "normals" who harm one of their own. He and Browning also got a major backlash from shocked critics and the various communities that banned the film because of its disturbing content, forcing many revisions and cuts in an attempt to get the film screened.

But Johnny Meah, a present-day sideshow performer and historian, defends the film, its story and its title in the documentary, calling it an undiscovered masterpiece.

"Freaks is not a dirty word," he insists. "There is nothing wrong with looking at somebody who is different than you are, and I will defend this to my dying breath."

Besides Mr. Skal and Mr. Meah, the documentary, which runs a bit longer than the 62-minute film, presents comments by another sideshow performer and historian, Todd Robbins. The three know the film and its history intimately. They offer a thorough overview of each of the real-life sideshow performers who appear in the film - such as Radian, an armless and legless man who played the Living Torso, and Johnny Eck, a legless man who walked on his hands and played Half Boy.

The disc also includes feature-length commentary by Mr. Skal, an authoritative speaker who has written a biography of Browning and has contributed fine commentary to other horror DVDs. Remnants of the film's troubled screenings - a "Special Message" explanatory prologue and more palatable alternate endings - are also contained on the disc.

"Freaks is a disturbing film, because it's a very ugly film - and not just because of what's in it, but what we bring to it, our own reactions," Mr. Skal says. "I think it will always be a very controversial film."