Though Tod Browning's “Freaks” has been available on home video for some time, what's really been needed is a collection of scholarly discussions and interviews to place the film in its proper context.
When MGM production bigwig, Irving Thalberg, greenlit the project with lingering reservations, “Freaks” was the studio's high-profile horror entry, after Universal had struck box office gold with thrillers like “The Mummy” and “Dracula.” The latter film, directed by Browning, was one of the directors most profitable and critically praised films, so it seemed logical to give Browning carte blanche in selecting a new vehicle to deliver shocking images.
Browning's silent film career contains a number of classic Lon Chaney thrillers, dramas, and shocks, and the carnival environment – with a special emphasis on circus freaks – was already prevalent in works like “The Unknown” (also made for MGM). The outrageously sadistic story of “The Unknown” presages broader involvement of real sideshow attractions in “Freaks,” and therein lies the film's lingering controversial problem: is “Freaks” tasteless exploitation, or a sympathetic portrait of a tightly-knit community threatened by the prejudices and greed of ‘normal' folks?
Even the film's cast members – now long gone, but interviewed to a degree by some of the DVD's documentary participants – had mixed reactions while making the film, and its final impression on audiences about their unusual physical qualities.
The excellent doc, “Freaks: Sideshow Cinema,” makes a strong effort to spotlight each of the film's real-life “freaks,” and includes interviews with carnival veterans, scholars, and film scholar David Skal. The latter also provides a commentary track for the film, and while there's obvious repetition and some notable gaps, the track includes a significant amount of production information, including valuable comparisons between Browning's original and far more mean-spirited script, deleted scenes (some notable, others questionable in taste), and the film's troubled ending.
The multiple endings are also highlighted in a separate gallery, with Skal explaining MGM's efforts to tweak the film's conclusion after some vicious critical and audience reactions. The film's current ending remains the longest available, and still feels tacked on, partly because of the abrupt transition, and the shift in film grain. The first transition is the conclusion to the opening prologue that bookends the film, while the second transition went through multiple duping, adversely affecting the grain and contrast between the preceding footage. Skal explains exactly what changes were done – really just editorial snipping in the final scene – that concluded the film with a new set of End Credits, set to bizarre, jaunty music.
The text prologue is also archived on the disc, and this “Special Message” was part of the studio's revised publicity campaign, designed to emphasize the virtues of people with physical deformities, when critics were labeling the film as sick and depraved.
“Freaks” did ultimately contribute to the end of Browning's career, and while 1936's “The Devil-Doll” is imbued with the director's innate sense of weirdness, after a few more projects, Browning left filmmaking for good. Warner Bros' disc is a must-have for Browning fans, and though the director felt uncomfortable in the world of talking pictures (having thrived in the silent era), the visuals and scene constructions in “Freaks” survive as testimony to a remarkable filmmaker.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan