And your ten-inch stump
Dressed like a priest, you was
Tod Browning's freak, you was
Freaks is a 1932 MGM horror film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning (coming off his success with 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 the acrobat and Hercules the weightlifter), who conspire to murder one of the freaks (a dwarf named Hans) and steal his large inheritance.
Upon release, the film was met with nothing short of extreme backlash from patrons, who reportedly ran out of the theater in fear; one woman attempted to sue MGM under the claim that the film caused her to suffer a miscarriage. As a result, the movie had several of its most disturbing scenes excised and permanently destroyed, cutting its 90-minute runtime down to just over an hour; this didn't do anything to quell the outcry, and it died an undignified death in the box office as a result. Seemingly relegated to Hollywood's dustbin, the film was rediscovered over 30 years later by the midnight theater crowd, leading it to gain a following as a Cult Classic and lost gem of pre-Code film history.
One bit of influence the film has had: The "Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us" chant with which the freaks welcome Cleo (not that she appreciates it) was worked into the songs "Pinhead" by The Ramones, "Donkeytown" by Doctor Steel, and "Separated Out" by Marillion, and has long since eclipsed the film itself in pop-culture prominence. David Bowie also namedropped the movie and its director in the title song on his album Diamond Dogs.
"We wouldn't lie to you folks, we told you we had living breathing tropes!":
- Adaptation Title Change: Freaks is very loosely based on the short story "Spurs".
- 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 genuinely intersex, as advertised.
- And I Must Scream: Cleo in the final scene, unable to speak after... whatever has been done to her.
- Animal Motifs: Cleo is referred to as "the peacock of the air". In the final scene, however, she's more of a chicken.
- Asshole Victim: Hercules and Cleopatra. Cleopatra only married Hans for his money and attempted to kill him to obtain said money. She also vehemently rejected the freaks welcoming her into their family and mocked Hans for his dwarfism. Hercules was equally cruel to the freaks and attempted to kill Venus because she knew what he and Cleopatra were trying to do to Hans. They both get their comeuppance in the end.
- Battle in the Rain: The final confrontation between Cleo, Hercules, and the freaks, in a driving rain.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Inverted with the titular "freaks" who are actually very friendly and gentle people, despite not portraying the classic "standard" of beauty; the ones who do meanwhile are the antagonists.
- Beauty Is Bad: Played straight with Cleo, who is as selfish as she is shallow. Although there are plenty of other good-looking characters who are treated a lot more sympathetically.
- Beta Couple: Phroso and Venus, whose relationship is given a reasonable amount of screen time but not much narrative weight.
- Betty and Veronica: Hans has to choose between the sweet, attainable ingenue Frieda and the exciting, sexy vamp Cleo. He chooses wrong.
- 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.
- Big Eater: Hercules, who considers six eggs a light snack.
- 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 the freaks do to Hercules and Cleo counts as well. Being forcibly castrated and disfigured beyond recognition is far from a pleasant fate, after all.
- Circus of Fear: Zigzagged. The freaks are fairly mellow people unless angered.
- Color Me Black: Cleo, whose hatred for the disabled people around her drives the plot, ends up becoming a sort of human chicken.
- 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 Darker and Edgier— and 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. Rather, it's the "normal"-looking people who are the villains of the film, with their virulent ableism and overwhelming greed driving them to attempted murder and plenty of general skullduggery.
- Death by Adaptation: In the comic adaptation, Hans blinds Hercules with a razor then runs him over with a carriage.
- Determinator: The "freaks." Their lack of limbs and/or other essential parts does 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, by way of a handkerchief he hid under the covers of his bed.
- Dramatic Drop: Cleo loudly drops the spoon used to give Hans his medicine when she realizes he is on to her.
- 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 directly mentions that Daisy and Violet are conjoined twins, not even when the fiancé of one meets the fiancé of the other. The two men even mention visiting the other couple even though logistically, they'd all have to live in one house.
- Even Evil Has Standards: While not evil, Roscoe is definitely a bit of a jerk, and hung out with Hercules and mocked Josephine Joseph at the start. But toward the end, after it comes out that Hercules probably had (and of course, did have) a hand in poisoning Hans, we see Roscoe pointedly avoiding Hercules' company, refusing to talk to 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.
- Femme Fatale: Cleopatra, whose beauty betrays her venomous scheming against Hans.
- Foreshadowing: At the wedding banquet, the freaks propose to accept Cleopatra as "one of us". By the end of the film, she had indeed become one of them in a way they (and she) had not intended.
- The Freakshow: The film is set in one for the vast majority of its plot.
- Gold Digger: The only reason Cleopatra was interested in Hans at all was because of his fortune.
- 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.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Hans is implied to have some feelings of self-hatred over being a little person. This, presumably, is why he finds the idea of a relationship with the "normal" Cleo so exciting, considering her inherently more desirable than Frieda.
- Insistent Terminology: "Children!? These are monsters!"
- Instant Soprano: The long-lost original ending supposedly had a scene of the misogynistic Hercules singing falsetto. Or, technically, castrato. Yes. That means exactly what you think it means.
- "Join Us" Drone: The famous "one of us" chant comes from a titular freaks accepting Cleo as someone who has joined them, whether she likes it or not. The difference is the context. The first time, they meant it in a friendly way since she was marrying Hans, a friend of theirs, that they considered family. But when she reveals she was stringing him along. They show her they meant it literally as well and makes sure her appearance reflects likewise at the end of the movie.
- Karmic Transformation: Cleo, Cleo, Cleo... do NOT piss off the circus freaks...
- Mutants: Of a sort; the titular freaks' deformities are all ones that are now known to be the result of genetic mutations.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Cleopatra, who looked down on the freaks, ends up becoming side-show freak herself. note Cleopatra is turned into a squawking "Chicken Woman", with the flesh on her hands melted to resemble bird feet, her legs amputated, and the remains of her torso being permanently tarred and feathered. (And even if the hands and torso are just a costume, she's obviously also had her face mutilated and apparently her vocal cords ruined.)
- Mama Bear: Circus owner Madame Tetrallini where the more vulnerable freaks are concerned. She even calls them her "children."
- 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.
- Polar Opposite Twins: Violet is a fiery party girl; Daisy is a demure homebody.
- Porky Pig Pronunciation: Roscoe has a really bad stammer.
- 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 with her feet to listen.
- Stock Shout-Outs: The "One of Us" chant.
- The Strongman: Hercules works as the circus's strongman.
- True Companions: The freaks are a family, and if you mess with one member, you mess with all of them. Cleopatra and Hercules find this out too late.
- The Unintelligible: Schlitzie, on account of his microcephaly (a common complication of which is neurocognitive impairment).
- 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.