[Podcast] Freaks (1932) – Episode 8 – Decades of Horror: The Classic Era

“Gooba gobble, gooba gobble, one of us, one of us. We accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us…” Easy for them to say! Join the Decades of Horror: The Classic Era’s Grue Crew – Chad Hunt, Erin Miskell, Jeff Mohr, and Joseph Perry – as we make a trip to the circus and take in Tod Browning’s legendary film, Freaks (1932).

Decades of Horror: The Classic Era
Episode 7 – Freaks (1932)

Loosely based on “Spurs,” a short story by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins, Freaks is the embodiment of the adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” all the way from its advertising taglines to the appearance of the film’s actors. Throughout the filming, Browning leans heavily on his experiences working in a carnival and exhibits a genuine affection for the title characters of Freaks.

The blatantly exploitative taglines – “The Love Story of a SIREN, a GIANT, and a DWARF!” and “Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET?” –  are so misleading as to constitute outright lies. Yet another tagline – “‘We’ll Make Her One of Us!’ from the gibbering mouths of these weird creatures came this frenzied cry… no wonder she cringed in horror… this beautiful woman who dared toy with the love of one of them!” – has nearly nothing to do with the film and only works to entice the audience with the supposed luridness of a freak show using phrases like “gibbering mouths,” “weird creatures,” “frenzied cry,” and “cringed in horror.”

Despite their abnormal bodies, the title characters of Freaks are the beautiful ones, exuding love and caring for one another in this traveling community. On the other hand, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), the beautiful siren; and Hercules (Henry Victor), the handsome strongman; turn out to be ugly beyond redemption, as they conspire to destroy Hans’ (Harry Earles) relationship with Frieda (Daisy Earles) and murder him in order to steal his inheritance. Throughout Freaks, these two villains pepper the sideshow community with derisive and disparaging insults, treating them as if they are less than human.

Hans and Frieda are supported throughout Freaks by their loving, understanding, and loyal friends in this big-hearted family – the half woman-half man (Josephine Joseph), the Siamese Twins (Violet and Daisy Hilton), the Armless Girl (Frances O’Connor), the Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson), the Living Torso (Prince Randian), the half-boy (Johnny Eck), Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto), Schlitze and too many others to list. Two normal-bodied members of their freakshow family are Phroso the Clown, played by consummate character actor Wallace Ford, and Venus, played by Leila Hyams.

Freaks is about that age old love-versus-greed conflict and in this case, love triumphs while the characters motivated by greed suffer hideous consequences. It’s unfortunate that the powers that be chose to pitch Freaks as the beautiful Cleopatra and handsome Hercules falling victims to a gibbering gang of weird creatures.

There’s some question as to whether or not Freaks is a horror film, but without a doubt, there are some horrifying scenes, especially in the last ten minutes. However, the horror is not in the appearance of the title characters as implied by the advertising taglines, but in what they do to Cleopatra and Hercules in return for the horrifying treatment the couple inflicts on them, especially Hans..

If you’re paying attention, you’ll hear which of us makes these memorable comments:

  • “… you can just kind of picture us bouncing in our seats right now.”
  • ‘“From the gibbering mouths of these weird creatures came this frenzied cry!” … Actually, our gibbering mouths were probably worse at the beginning of this episode.’
  • “I cry like every five minutes in this movie.”
  • “Tell me what you can do with your eyebrow.”
  • “I would’ve smiled and then just spiked Cleopatra’s drink with as many laxatives as I could get my hands on.”

We plan to release a new episode every other week. Our upcoming schedule includes The Queen of Spades (1949), The Last Man on Earth (1964), Village of the Damned (1960) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Please let us know what you think of Decades of Horror: The Classic Era and what films you’d like to hear us cover! We want to hear from you! After all, without you, we’re just four nutjobs talking about the movies we love. Send us an email  (chadhunt@gruesomemagazine.com, erinmiskell@gruesomemagazine.com, jeffmohr@gruesomemagazine.com, or josephperry@gruesomemagazine.com) or leave us a message, a review or a comment at GruesomeMagazine.com, iTunes, the Horror News Radio App, or the Horror News Radio Facebook group.

To each of you, a great big “THANK YOU FOR LISTENING!” from each of us!

Jeff Mohr
Jeff lives smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa and is a long time horror fan. His first remembered encounters with the genre were The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan gorilla chases, and watching the first broadcast of The Twilight Zone episode, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” While he now qualifies as an old fart, he strives to be an “Old Boy.” Paraphrasing Robert Bloch, he has the heart of a small boy. He keeps it in a jar on his desk. Jeff has written for Horrornews.net and SQ Horror Magazine and co-hosted the SQ Bloodlines podcast. He currently writes for Gruesome Magazine and is co-host of the Decades of Horror The Classic Era and 1970s podcasts.
  • Wow. That was my first time watching this movie. It’s one I’ve avoided since first hearing about it as a teen, because I’m one of those folks who just cant bear to watch human beings mistreat other human beings and call it entertainment. I saw The Elephant Man in theaters back in the day, and I remember it being amazing, but I’ve never gone back to it because it just flat out HURT too much the first time around. I never did make it through Sling Blade–I remember getting to a certain point in the film where Brigg’s character was being cruelly mistreated by someone and couldn’t finish the movie. So now you know (one of the reasons) why I’m such a creature feature fan. People being menaced by outrageously fictional monsters, aliens and so on, I’m all for. But people suffering at the hands of other people, that just hits too close to home for me to enjoy. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this film in some ways. Technically and artistically, it’s freaking incredible. The performances are all top notch, the direction too. And I’d LOVE to see an extended cut of this, done as the director originally intended. But I think it’s a case of “love, not like” for me, just due to the subject matter. An important film, to be sure, and well worth watching just to bear witness to all the genius involved in its various creative folks, behind and in front of the camera. But not one I’ll be pulling off the shelf twice a year for the sheer enjoyment factor. As always, you folks did a fantastic job of discussing its various aspects. I’m continuing to enjoy seeing a wide ranging group come together, agreeing and disagreeing as they share their viewpoints with each other and the audience. Looking forward to things to come. 🙂

    • Thunderhead Jones

      Thanks again for such insightful feedback, Salty. I’m very much in your camp on this. Human suffering at the hands of other humans is something very sickening to me and hits very close to home as well. Like you, I felt the same way watching The Elephant Man. I watched it once as a young guy and never returned to it, but remember it scene for scene to this day. I can’t tolerate this treatment in real life, so it’s hard to watch a movie that portrayed it fictionally. But like you said, it is a marvelous movie, and very well made. Tears and all.
      Thanks for being such a loyal listener, and for taking time to write. Good to know we are on the right track!

    • Thanks so much once again for your comments and insight, Salty. The four of us truly appreciate it. We read your comment and responded to it on the “Village of the Damned” episode that we recorded on June 4th; it is scheduled for release on June 21st, so please keep an ear out for that!