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Film Review by Dean Duncan May 5, 2014

First of all, that Hercules character sounds just like Bluto! More: Freaks is a very “B” picture, in its uneven performances, its conceptual confusions, and how in the end all that doesn’t matter much. It’s really great! It’s a mess, though, and that great messiness has to be acknowledged. This movie is in conflict with itself! You wonder which way they wanted it? To take and portray the fearsome, misshapen Other so sympathetically that audiences cross through understanding and all the way to empathy? Or to render physical deformity, and the physically deformed as well, as our very worst nightmare? Are they exploiting the afflicted, or providing a number of actual individuals with employment and even exposure, partly positive, that wouldn’t otherwise have happened? It goes both ways, I guess, which makes Freaks at once a very confused film, a rich and exact attitudinal artifact, and a superb social dream just begging to be analyzed.

Felicities: Hans and Frieda/Harry and Daisy Earles are lovely, as characters and as performers. There’s a heavy humourous hand here, but the broad jokes (especially the bits with the Siamese twins and their fiancés) may actually be sort of respectful, and eventually even helpful. There’s no tiptoeing, no pretending that things aren’t things. These characters, and the film in which they circulate so freely, model the fact that you can get used to and have fun with difficult reality. Every family with a disabled member knows as much. And it’s more than just fun, of course. It comes glancingly, but there’s such sweetness here! Consider the amazing Arcadian sequence set in that aristocratic parkland, near the beginning of the film.  This is a luminous vision of innocent children, dancing in the Garden. Those dear hypocephalic girls! And their dear minder—who is clearly not an actor, but their actual friend.  You can’t help but notice and be touched by the level of familiarity, of intimacy in their interaction. It’s so lovely that you’re bugged that they’re so so obsequious to the aristocrat, when he deigns to let them linger a while. Oh well. One thing at a time, I guess.

(For a comparatively unconflicted, decidedly nurturing take on disability, see Heather [2000], the first entry in the BYU Theatre and Media Arts-hosted Fit for the Kingdom film series:

By the time the freaks/our friends get to the “we accept you we accept you one of us one of us” sequence, they’re now addressing the members of the audience, and they’re also articulating the attitude the audience has developed toward them. It’s quite an accomplishment in manipulation, and in education besides. The bad guys’ cruel rejection of these poor, good people cements our sympathies. Lesson learned! But then the horror genre reasserts itself, and exacts its due in a not-very-nice plot turn. This may be fiction, but the mindset behind the final plot resolution is a matter of pure social documentation. Mixed messages then, and mixed feelings; in 1932, when the freaks crawl up out of the muck to exact their revenge, stomachs must have knotted as much as when Frankenstein’s monster was running through the bride’s boudoir. That wasn’t the direction we seemed to be going toward. One step forward, two steps back.