Film / Freaks


Freaks is a 1932 horror film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning (coming off the success of the previous year's Dracula) and featuring a cast mostly composed of actual carnival performers. The film was very loosely based on Tod Robbins' short story "Spurs".

Browning had previously worked as a contortionist in a traveling circus, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. He also took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks", rather than using costumes and makeup on conventional actors. In the film, the deformed "freaks" are generally kind, well-meaning people. This contrasts with two of the "normal" performers in the circus (Cleopatra, an acrobat and Hercules, a weightlifter), who conspire to murder one of the freaks (a midget named Hans) and steal his large inheritance.

One bit of influence the film has had: The "Gooble gobble, we accept you, one of us" chant with which the freaks welcome Cleo (not that she appreciates it) was worked into the song "Pinhead" by The Ramones.note 

Not to be confused with Freaks and Geeks, despite the etymology of the word Geek.

"We wouldn't lie to you folks, we told you we had living breathing tropes!":

  • Affectionate Nickname: Hans, in one scene, calls his fiancée Frieda "Friedchen," which is a portmanteau of her real name and the German word liebchen (beloved).
  • Ambiguous Gender: Josephine Joseph. It's still unknown whether the performer was a man, woman, or a genuine hermaphrodite, as advertised.
  • And I Must Scream: Behold, the amazing Chicken Lady!
  • Asshole Victims: Hercules and Cleopatra.
  • Battle in the Rain: The final confrontaton between Cleo, Hercules, and the freaks, in a driving rain.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Inverted at first with the titular 'freaks' (who are not most people's idea of beauty, but are the good and sympathetic characters) and with Cleo (for whom it's entirely the opposite).
  • Beta Couple: Phroso and Venus.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The freaks here generally are gentle and friendly people, but when someone plans the death of one of them, they will not let you get away with that... you better believe it.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Phroso saving Venus from Hercules at the end, followed by the Freaks saving Phroso from Hercules.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Cleopatra. She pretends to love Hans so she could marry him and then take all his money.
  • Body Horror: What special effects? The eponymous freaks really looked like that.
    • What the freaks do to Hercules and Cleo count as well. *shudder*
  • Circus of Fear: Used straight and averted. The freaks are fairly mellow people unless angered.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: A four-issue miniseries came out in 1992, written by Frank's Jim Woodring and illustrated by Francisco Solano Lopez. Per The Dark Age of Comic Books, it's much more graphic about what gets done to Cleo.
  • Conjoined Twins: Daisy and Violet, played by real-life conjoined twins.
  • Cutlass Between the Teeth: In the climax, the limbless Randian is seen wriggling towards the antagonist with a knife clenched between his teeth.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The "freaks" have deformities, but once you get past 'em, they're very pleasant.
  • Determinator: The "freaks." Their lack of limbs and/or other essential parts would not stop them from trying to have as good a life as possible.
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: Hans spits out the poisoned medicine that Cleopatra gives him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The freaks take brutal revenge on Cleo and Hercules. Hans, feeling guilty over the whole thing (even though he only wanted Cleo exposed for her crime and the poison handed over), has lived as a recluse for years. But then we see Phroso and Venus together, and Frieda gets back together with Hans, comforting him, telling him it wasn't his fault and that she loves him.
  • Elephant in the Living Room: Nobody mentions that Daisy and Violet are conjoined twins, not even when the fiancé of one meets the fiancé of the other.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While not evil, Roscoe was a bit of a jerk, and hung out with Hercules and mocked Josephine Joseph at the start. But toward the end, after it's learned that Hercules probably had (and of course, did have) a hand in poisoning Hans, we see Roscoe and Hercules together in the same place, and this time Roscoe just glares at Hercules, says nothing, and walks away from him.
  • Expy: Not in the movie itself, but in "Spurs", Jacques Coubré (renamed Hans for the movie) is basically this for Tweedledee, the Big Bad of Tod Robbins' earlier work, The Unholy Three. Essentially, he's what Tweedledee would have been like had he actually gotten away with his crimes. The movie version of Hans is nothing like Tweedledee, however (despite his actor playing the character in the Unholy Three movie adaptations).
  • Fate Worse than Death: Cleopatra and Hercules. They don't kill them. Oh, no. That would be far too kind.
  • The Freakshow
  • Hostile Weather: Used memorably in the climax.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with a carnival barker telling circus-goers about a beautiful woman who was turned into a terrible freak. Then the camera cuts to Cleopatra in her trapeze, and the story starts.
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Frieda tells Hans she only wants him to be happy but knows Cleopatra will make him anything but.
  • Insistent Terminology: "Children!? These are monsters!"
  • Instant Soprano: A now-lost alternate ending has a scene of Hercules the misogynist singing soprano.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Phroso, Roscoe
  • Karmic Transformation: Cleo, Cleo, Cleo... do NOT piss off the circus freaks...
  • Mutants
  • Nice to the Waiter: Phroso being kind to Schlitzie and the Snow sisters, who are all mentally handicapped.
  • Older Than They Look: Hans and Frieda, by oh-so-very-much. They may look like children, but they're both adults and quite eligible for marriage.
  • Played for Laughs: The scenes involving the conjoined twins and their romantic laugh were intended to be Cringe Comedy to some degree.
  • Porky Pig Pronunciation: Roscoe.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!:
    Cleopatra: "FILTHY! SLIMY! FREAKS!"
  • Sex by Proxy: Daisy and Violet, necessarily. They can each feel the other's emotions.
    • The scene where one twin kisses her fiancé and the other twin lights up with pleasure is a surprisingly explicit allusion to this.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: SCARY SCARY TITLE CARD! Perfectly normal hanging-out scene involving circus performers. Who are freaks.
  • Stalker with a Crush: There's a scene where one of the circus workers is telling a story about a guy who keeps showing up in the audience and proposing to marry her, but the viewer is probably too busy watching the armless Frances O'Connor use a knife and fork to listen.
  • Stock Shout-Outs: The "One of Us" chant.
  • True Companions: The freaks are a family and they look after each other. Cleopatra and Hercules find this out too late.
  • The Unintelligible: Schlitzie.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: An inversion (in which a villainous character directs this towards the sympathetic characters) during the famous "gobble gobble, one of us" scene. Even though Cleo (successfully) ingratiates herself with the freaks in order to scam Hans out of his fortune, she simply cannot hide her revulsion when they demonstrate their genuine acceptance of her.