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The Freaks Double Feature!
Assuming this isn't the first article of mine that you're reading, you already know my weird love/hate relationship with political correctness. Years of sensitivity conditioning clashes directly with the absurd silliness of people taking certain things WAY too seriously. If you remember my article on the Leprechaun Series, you might remember how hard it was for me to skirt around the whole dwarf/midget/vertically challenged debacle. Which only makes what you're about to read all the harder. Well, half of what you're about to read. I've had these two films sitting on my shelf for far too long and, well, they're two movies I assault my house guests with if they plan on staying for more than one night. It's a rite of passage, if you will. I'm talking about the films Freaks and Freaks (the 2nd one sometimes labeled as "Freaked" in the U.S.). Both these films are about freaks of nature. Both are infamous in their respective circles and, well, it's about time I threw them at you kind internet dwellers.
The film's tagline:
"Can a full grown woman love a MIDGET?"
Already it should be hurting you. By the tagline alone we're about to see a drama unfold featuring the forbidden love of wee little people. The creepy thing is, that's only part of the story. Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, is the first feature film to feature "real" freaks. As in human oddities that our grandparents used to see when the carnival came to town. Freaks features a handful of "normal" actors, but all the freaks in the cast are, well, legitimate sideshow performers. We've got pinheads, shemales, wolfmen, human worms, dwarves, men without legs, bearded ladies....and more. Now you might already be thinking we're about to see a highly horrible example of exploitation. Which is already a little wonky to be thinking. Why can't those handicapped at birth or mutilated by accident be legitimate actors? This takes the "why hire a midget" drama to another level and even the makers of this film were SUPER concerned about not coming across as taking advantage of the "freaks" they filmed to make this picture. Of course, this film IS exploitation...but it's not. But it still sort of is. I'll let you be the judge...there's far to much malformed shapes of grey going on here.
To prove my point about the film makers not wanting to look like they were exploiting their cast, they thought an audience in 1932 would like to READ the first ten minutes of their movie. That's only a slight exaggeration, but here's the text that scrolls across the screen before the movie even starts. I'll warn you that it's long and the ritalin-guzzling amongst you might just want to scroll right past the green text. Warning placed, check out their rationale:
Before proceeding with the showing of the following highly unusual attraction, a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter.
In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversity were invariably cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia. History, Religion, Folklore, and Literature abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world's course. Goliath, Calaban, Frankenstein, Gloucester, Tom Thumb, and Kaiser Wilhelm are just a few, whose fame is world wide.
The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, per chance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the course put upon it. Occasionally, one of these unfortunates was taken to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for the amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing, or starving.
For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of the long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a hear breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people.
Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all, the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.
With humility for the many injustices done to such people, (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most starling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.
To date, that's the longest damn introduction I've ever seen in a film. I'm guessing the filmmakers KNEW what they were getting into. If you look at the trivia surrounding this film, you'll find out that MGM meant this film to be as horrible as possible. Yes, the folks at MGM hired a script-writer to make a horror movie about circus freaks. Nice one. So why does this film make me uncomfortable and why did it give the director nightmares while he was filming it?
...Because a lot of people have trouble dealing with the handicapped. I know it's not polite to say, but there's a weird visceral HOLY CRAP reaction whenever we run across someone radically different from ourselves. We experience it in small doses when someone simply dyes their hair some absurd color or runs a shower-curtain rod through their eyebrows. Freaks takes it to an entire new level. By filming sideshow freaks (or the handicapped or whatever you want to call them) you get up close and personal with things that, well, might make you walk on the other side of the street if you saw them coming your way. I'm not saying it's right but even in this age of cultural sensitivity we all do it to some degree. I'm pretty sure that "cultural" isn't the right word, but I'm not sure what sensitivity of the different/malformed would be called. I still feel bad about picking on Brenda Harvey in elementary school because she was a creepy chicken of a 6th grader in cokebottle glasses. Brenda if you can read this, I'm sure you grew up to be super-hot and I'm sorry we threw our tater tots at you regularly. :blink: I seem to have gone on a weird guilt-tangent. Sorry about that.
Of course, the other appeal of this film is we get to see how sideshow freaks do normal stuff that we take for granted. Like how a legless man runs around or a armless woman drinks a glass of wine. None of those top the "Amazing Randion", a black fellow blessed/curse without any arms OR legs.
You haven't lived until you've seen a man without arms or legs roll and light his own cigarette without any help. There are a lot of scenes like this. They don't further the story but they show off the actor's "special talents". It IS explotational, but it's also really, really interesting.
Trivia Time: Angelo, one of the dwarves in Freaks, is actually an actor most of you might have seen. You ever see Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome? Remember "Master Blaster", the creepy elderly midget that rode around on the back of a giant retard (I mean mentally challenged) super-gladiator? Master Blaster's midget was played by Angelo Rossito, who plays, amazingly, a dwarf of the same name here. Not shocking trivia, but it is kind of neat knowing I've seen one of these guys before.
Now so far, I've only pointed out a few of the goofy things lurking around the sensitivity (or lack thereof) found in this movie. If the film ISN'T taking advantage of its cast, then there's got to be a story? A legitimate story that definitely doesn't exploit the sideshow dwellers, right? We'll see. It's story time.
Say hi to Hans and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is the circus trapeze artist, while Hans is the....well...circus midget I guess. Hans has a huge crush on Cleopatra, who is actually fooling around with the circus strongman, Hercules. Of course, this doesn't stop her from being a tiny cocktease to Hans. When she finds out he's got a lot of money, Cleo goes ahead and decides to marry him. This is the main plot of the movie and, to be honest, it does sound a lot like a soap opera. One of the main characters is indeed a "freak" if you will...but it's sort of telling that all the other "handicapped" characters are really just background dressing. Sure, they're important to the plot but they're like most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Only a few of the dinosaurs do anything, but the film wouldn't be the same if you got rid of all the raptors in the background. I doubt that made the sense I'd intended, but let's move on. There is something in this film that is STILL being referenced to today. One scene that still lurks in the reptilian part of director's brains that bobs to the surface for air once every couple years. I am talking of the "one of us" scene.
Have you ever wondered where that scene where everyone chants "One of Us, One of Us, One of Us!" to make a character join a cult/organization/whatever originated from? The answer is the movie Freaks. During Cleo and Han's wedding feast, all the freaks pass a giant goblet around and scream at Cleo (the normal girl, remember) that she's now "ONE OF US, ONE OF US! GOOBLE GOBBLE GOOBLE GOBBLE ONE OF US, ONE OF US!" It's actually a bit disturbing but the point of the scene is that Cleopatra totally freaks out and pisses off the carnival community. Well, the community of sideshow attractions, but whatever. This film really walks the line between exploitation and being socially informative...I'll drop that thread here on out. No joy can be found agonizing about it.
So Cleo starts poisoning her husband Hans so she can get the money. All would go well if it wasn't for the freaks lurking in the darkness, outside her window and under her stairs spying on her. I think this is when the horror aspect of the film really gets underway, as Cleopatra is slowly stalked by the community she shuns.
By the by, the fact that a armless and legless man is lurking outside your house watching you is undeniably creepy. Normal stalking is scary enough. When mutilated human beings are trying to get at you, well, things just are obviously going downhill. They do indeed get worse, as once Cleopatra is unveiled as a traitor to the freak code (by poisoning Hans) all hell breaks loose. Here are a couple highlights:
The "Half Boy" (Johnny Eck) pulls out a gun and starts polishing it menacingly in front of Cleo. A legless man might not be able to move to quickly, but dear God, he's allowed to buy firearms just like anyone else in America.
The film's climax features all the freaks on their hands and knees, in the rain, chasing Cleopatra into the night. If you had any squeemish reaction to just looking at the unfortunates before, this is the thing that'll haunt you for far too long. Mentally challenged entertainers....with knives...crawling toward the camera. Thank you, MGM.
I'm not sure how much he was paid to do it, but even the amazing Randion puts a knife between his teeth and crawls through the mud to try get Cleopatra. I'm not sure what he would have done with the knife if he ever caught her, but human torsos wielding knives is just a little too much for me.
In the end, they do catch Cleopatra and do, indeed, make her "one of them". She's the film's only "fake" freak and she's a...err....chicken lady. I guess. Freaks are apparently really good at mutilating people and they've taken their revenge out on Cleo by making her...one...of them. Man, that's kind of messed up if you think about it. They're using their own status as a punishment. I...I...I'm not sure what to say to that. That's like the black community getting together and turning a total racist into a black man as punishment for being racist. Well, sort of. Maybe not.
Whether this film is exploitation or a piece of social commentary, it's up to you to decide. I think that by modern standards is GOOD to think of it as a piece documenting how the unfortunate were treated in the past. However I'm SURE that's not why this film was made. But again, that's just my opinion. It's an interesting film, but not everyone can stomach it. Check it out if that sounds like your kind of thing.
And now, for something completely different.
*Also known as Freaks (1993)
It wasn't until a couple years ago that I even knew this film existed. A few of you around my age might remember a film called "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure". Ted, as you might know, was played by Keanu Reeves who would go on to, well, lots of things that are kind of awesome and give him an excuse to say "Woah" more than Joey Lawrence on Blossom (I watched WAY too much TV when I was younger). But what happened to Bill S. Preston played by Alex Winters? The answer is this film followed by a WHOLE lot of nothing. I love this film but dear God it was a star-studded deathcurse for a certain someone's career. The film is a comedy that I might actually use the word "zany" to describe. It's a slapstick comedy about sideshow freaks (no real ones this time...it's all make-up) and a sleazy dick of an actor who stumbles onto an evil mastermind's plan for world....mutation or something. The film is bizarre and hilarious...I have no idea how I missed it when I was 12. If you haven't seen the film, you probably should. You are, after all, reading this site so you're probably diseased in the brain in all the right ways. Freaked is super-hard to summarize, so I'm just going to throw out 13 things that made my brain hemorage while watching. It's an awesome movie, but it'll still hurt you while it makes you laugh.
#1: Holy Crap, it's Bill!
I don't care if I've already said it. It is VERY surreal seeing the bastard red-headed stepchild of the Bill & Ted combo...mostly because of how far Keanu Reeves went after those movies. This is possibly the furthest Alex Winter's has gone as he's the writer, director, and star of this movie. Sure he's directing the next "Ben 10" movie that's going directly to video, but man. While Keanu Reeves was starring in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Much Ado about Nothing, Alex Winter was praying to GOD this film would give him a career. It's an awesome movie but man, you feel bad for the guy.
#2: Holy Crap, It's Mr. T as the Bearded Lady!
There's not much more that I can say. They got Mr. T to wear a dress and make-up. That alone is pretty awesome. It's also very, very freaking strange to watch.
#3: Holy Crap, who is that?
Yes, Keanu Reeves plays "Ortiz, the Dog Boy" in the movie Freaked. For whatever reason he had his name taken off the cast list...maybe because he had a real film career going on at this point. I'm not sure. But watching this movie it's particularly special to be watching Keanu Reeves pretend to be a dog, hoping to GOD that no one figured out it was him behind all the crepe-hair. Oh, and he can lick his own balls. Apparently.
#4: Bobcat Goldthwait is the "Sockhead"
Speaking of people who's careers revolved around the success of a single movie franchise (Police Academy), Bobcat plays the man with a sockpuppet for a head. Not hilarious, but still worth sharing.
#5: Heavy Petting Zoo
#6: Midget + Farting = Comedy Gold
#7: Brooke Shields? They Got Brooke Shields in this movie?
While I have to admit I'm too young to figure out what the hell Brooke Shields is famous for, you can't deny she's got the whole name recognition thing going on. Just looking at her biography online is pretty surreal. She's dated Michael Jackson (DEAR LORD) and was voted by Time magazine to be the "Face of the 1980's". Considering how my common memory only really dates back to the early 90's, that might explain why this 42-year-old lady didn't show up on my radar.
#8: Why hello Randy Quaid!
Yet another name I recognize. How the hell is it I never heard of this movie?
#9: "Hey Man, come here I've got a turd that looks just like Winona Ryder...and she's naked!"
I swear to Christ, that's an actual line from the movie.
#10: Machine gun-toting Rastafarian Eyeballs.
:brain caves in:
#11: The Human Toad.
While he's not the best character in the movie, Toad holds a special place in my heart. Can you guess why?
This shouldn't make me as happy as it does.
#12: Special Effects by Screaming Mad George
The special effects of Freaks is pretty freaking awesome, mostly because this film came out before everything was computer-generated. That's not saying much but about 90% of this film would be done by animating polygons if it was made today. I've mentioned Screaming Mad George before. He's the guy who did special effects for everything from Predator to Nightmare on Elm Street (parts 4 & 5) to Big Trouble in Little China to, well, lots of really good monster movies that needed some freaky, freaky special effects. Freaked wouldn't have been made without his help and dear Lord it's awesome to see. Number 12 is the last item on my list but really, the special effects of this movie are pretty impressive. Oh, they don't look real...but the sheer work that went into the puppetry is pretty fun to see.
Freaked is a film that's hard to explain besides just saying that it's very weird and very funny. And really gross. And, well, yeah. It's awesome.
Oh I can't end a list like that. I haven't written an article in over a month and I still know that's not something to leave as a finale. How's this for size?
#13: The Rectoral Flame
"Fire in the Hole!"
Yes, the Rectoral Flame. One of the characters in the movie has flames shooting out of his ass at all times.
I can't think of a better moment to end this article. Whether you like your freaks real or slightly latex....or just shooting fire out of their most private orifice, hopefully you've learned something today.
"Who would like to thank everyone who's been supporting of his freaking writer's block"
Copyright 2007 Jared von Hindman or maybe just Jared Hindman. It depends. Any images used that are not Jared's are used via Fair Use review purposes and belong to their respective owners....who are nice people that don't want to sue me.
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