5. Freaks (1932)
Of all the films on this list, none are more controversial than the cult classic, Freaks. And considering the list, that’s saying something.
Intended to be MGM’s first ever horror movie, Freaks was directed by up and comer Tod Browning who had successfully made the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula for Universal Pictures in 1931. Browning actually grew up in a traveling circus as a teenager and was eager to draw upon his personal experiences in the big top for Freaks.
What made the film so controversial is that Browning decided to cast real circus sideshow performers in place of established actors. There are no special effects or make up in Freaks. The Siamese twins were 100% real conjoined twins. The armless girl really had no arms. Schlitzie, the pinhead was born with a deformed and underdeveloped skull and suffered from severe mental retardation.
Other notable performers in the film included Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar, Elizabeth Green as Bird Girl, Jane Barnell as the Bearded Lady, Miinie Woolsey as Koo-Koo, and Josephine Joseph as the Half Man- Half Woman.
Considered highly exploitative by some, and shocking by most, the film was so poorly received upon release that it was banned in the UK for 30 years as well as many American cities and states. (Some of those bans were never repealed and so are still technically in effect) One woman even threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her miscarriage.
Freaks is half a Hollywood movie and half a circus sideshow. The plot involves the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and her scheme with the show’s strongman, Hercules, to marry and later kill the wealthy midget Hans (Harry Earles) in order to lay claim to his large inheritance. Overjoyed with the news, Hans and his freak friends accept the outsider Cleopatra by inducting her into the group through a strange “gooba gobble one of us” ceremony. Frightened by the outpouring of freaks Cleopatra lets the cat out of the bag as the freaks turn on her and Herc, using their freak abilities to attack and overwhelm them with knives and guns. To take revenge, Cleopatra’s legs are cut off, her hands are melted into a web like shape, and she becomes permanently tarred and feathered to become a freak in her own right, a “human duck”. Yikes! To make matters worse, in the original cut Hercules was captured by the freaks and castrated!
By the way, Freaks was made in the era just before the Motion Picture Production Code was created and so is unrated. If you hadn’t figured out already.
Despite having an ironic moral twist, the film proposes that the greedy Cleopatra and Hercules are the real freaks while the circus performers are decent and warmhearted… well except for that whole castration and feathering fiasco, audiences and critics at the time were aghast at the spectacle onscreen. Numerous critics at the time defined the film as stomach churning and the film was considered a financial flop which killed Browning’s career dead on the spot.
The popular FX TV show, American Horror Story recently paid homage this horror classic with an entire season entitled, “Freak Show” to strong ratings. Over time, Freaks has grown in popularity to become as peculiar of a film today as the circus oddities that starred in it.
It’s become a real freak of Hollywood history.
FUN FACTS: In the film there is a scene that was cut short of Prince Randian (The Human Torso) lighting a cigarette which he had rolled himself.