June 15, 2015 Freaks – Past and Present
Cleopatra, in 1932’s Freaks, screams, “FREAKS, FREAKS, FREAKS, GET OUT OF HERE!” This harsh rebuke from the film’s femme fatale was a premonition of sorts of the public’s opinion when the film Freaks was released on February 20, 1932. Director Tod Browning (Mark of the Vampire 1935, Devil-Doll 1936) and writer Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins (The Branded Man 1928, The Unholy Three 1930) never thought their film would be banned in some parts of the US -and could conceivably still be banned since said bans were never repealed. In the UK, the film was banned until May of 1963, making it the longest ban in the country’s history. One report states that a woman suffered a miscarriage after a test screening and attributed the incident to the fact that she was upset by the film.
Fast forward eighty-two years, and popular FX series American Horror Story aired their fourth season, Freak Show, inspired partly from the original film Freaks. The series consisted of thirteen episodes, each an hour long. Directors of the modern day show include Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Glee , The Carrie Diaries), Michael Uppendahl (Mad Men , Glee), Howard Deutch (Tales from the Crypt, American Horror Story: Coven), Anthony Hemingway (ER, True Blood), Bradley Buecker (The New Normal, American Horror Story), Loni Peristere (Banshee), and Michael Goi (Sexy Urban Legends, Megan Is Missing 2011). The writers include the likes of Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee), Brad Falchuk (Mutant X, Nip/Tuck), Tim Minear (The X-Files, Firefly), James Wong (The X-Files, The Others 2000), Jennifer Salt (A Nero Wolfe Mystery 2002, Nip/Tuck), Jessica Sharzer (Speak 2004), John J. Gray (Angel 2001), and Crystal Liu (I Think in White 2003, Speed Dating 2007). The recent series, Freakshow, also featured some contemporary freaks who mirror Browning’s freaks from his 1932 motion picture.
The original Freaks was a Noirish/Horror film centered on a love triangle of sorts. Hans (Harry Earles: The Wizard of Oz 1939 [uncredited]) falls in love with the ravishing trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova: Three Sinners 1928, Street of Sin 1928), but he is already betrothed to Frieda (Daisy Earles: The Wizard of Oz 1939 [uncredited]). Hans is a dwarf and is shy around Cleopatra because she is of average height. When he does muster the courage to talk to her, she simply hands him her cape with a mumbled thanks and saunters off to flirt with Strong Man, Hercules (Henry Victor: The Mummy 1932, King of the Zombies 1941). Frieda tries to be understanding and patient with Hans, but it hurts since she is a dwarf like him and she knows she can make him happy. Cleopatra soon gets word that Hans is coming into money from an inheritance. Scheming with Hercules, she acts like she is interested in marrying Hans, but she only wants to get his inheritance after he dies. The plan is put into motion, and word gets out that Cleopatra and Hans are dating, which the other Carnies think is odd since Hans and Frieda have been an item for a long time.
The other Carnies in the film include the “kids'” caretaker, Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione: Naughty Baby 1928, One Stolen Night 1929); Venus, the wisecracking performer and friend of Frieda (Leila Hyams: Alias Jimmy Valentine 1932, The Island of Lost Souls 1932); Venus’ boyfriend, the Clown, Phrotos (Wallace Ford: Night of Terror 1933, Big Cage 1933); the Stutterer, Roscoe (Roscoe Ates: Alice in Wonderland 1933, Gone With the Wind 1939); the Siamese Twins, (Daisy and Violet Hilton: Chained for Life 1952); the Pinhead (microcephalic), Schlitzie (Himself: The Sideshow 1928, Island of Lost Souls 1932[both uncredited]); the Pinhead sisters, Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow in their only role); the Half Woman/Half Man, Josephine Joseph (themselves in their only role); Half Boy (Johnny Eck: Tarzan [uncredited]); Armless Girl (Frances O’Connor in her only role); Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson in his only role); the Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick in her only role); the Living Torso (Prince Randian in his only role); the Dwarf, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto: The Beloved Rogue 1927, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome 1985) and his armless wife (Martha Morris in her only role); Bird Girl (Elizabeth Green in her only role); the Sword Swallower (Delmo Fritz:The Unholy Three 1925 [uncredited]); and the Rollo Brothers (Edward Brophy: The Thin Man 1934, Death on the Diamond 1934 and Matt McHugh: The Woman from Monte Carlo 1932, Courting Trouble 1932).
This band of entertainers throws a reception where Cleopatra is accepted into the freaks’ fold: “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble.” Koo Koo the Bird Girl, who suffered a congenital growth skeletal disorder called Virchow-Seckel Syndrome, provides entertainment as a dancer. As the booze and the rabble-rousing carry on, Cleopatra lapses out of character, calling everybody freaks. As a result, everybody stops cold – especially Hans, who tries to bring order to the confusion, but suddenly collapses. He wakes in his bed and overhears something he should not have, thus, setting into motion one of the most notorious and unsettling climaxes in film history.
In 2014’s American Horror Story: Freak Show audiences are introduced to a quasi-Noirish/Horror series centering on one of the last freak shows held back in the early 1950s in Jupiter, Florida. After Siamese Twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson: The Notorious Bette Page 2005, American Horror Story), are found in their dead mother’s house, they are rushed to the hospital to be hidden until it is determined what to do with them. A freak show manager, Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange: King Kong 1976, Toosie 1982) shows up and begins talking to them, learning a secret that could end them. She blackmails the twins to come work for her in her failing freak show. All the while, a demented clown named Twisty (John Carroll Lynch: Zodiac 2007, Shutter Island 2010), not part of the freak show, is going around doing random killings, taking the girlfriend in the first murder and a boy prisoner.
Once at the freak show’s campsite, the twins meet the Bearded Lady and Elsa’s right-hand man, Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates: Misery 1990, Dolores Claiborne 1995); Ethel’s son, the Crab Boy, Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters: Kick-Ass 2010, X-Men:Days of Future Past 2014); the Tall Woman, Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin: Family Tools series 2013, Hemlock Grove series 2013); the World’s Smallest Living Person, Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge: Body Shock 2009, Bigg Boss 6 series 2012-2013); Legless Suzi (Rose Siggins: Ripley’s Believe It or Not! 2000); the Pinheads, Salty and Pepper (Christopher Neiman: Pushing Daisies, Comedy Bang! Bang! 2012), Naomi Grossman: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, American Horror Story); Paul, the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser: Metrosexuality 1999, Helen of Troy 2003); and American Horror Story: Freak Show’s call for Koo Koo, Meep (the late Ben Woolf: Insidious 2010, Haunting Charles Manson 2014). When a detective investigating a murder calls the Carnies freaks, Jimmy kills him. Then, he calls a meeting where they gather around the body and vow to make a pact to kill anybody who call them freaks. The end of the episode poses a question that will ultimately change the twins’ lives forever…and we find out something very personal about Elsa. This pilot episode sets the rest of the season’s feel in motion.
Proving the difference time makes, Freaks was made when anybody with a disability or a deformity died at birth. Those that lived were either left for dead or dropped off and left in institutes away from the public eyes; ignorance is bliss. Browning was actually, or so he thought, doing a service giving these people jobs in starring roles. Instead, the public abhorred the grotesque deformities that were “flaunted” on screen for ninety minutes…virtually killing his career. Nowadays, people with disabilities or deformities are in the public eye; yet can and do go unseen…and even less on screen…more often than not played by able-bodied actors and actresses. To American Horror Story: Freak Show’s credit, a handful of the cast were living freaks (Amazon Eve, Legless Suzi, Ma Petite, Paul, and the Illustrated Seal), while known actors and actresses (the aforementioned Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange as well Angela Bassett: How Stella Got Her Groove Back 1998, What’s Love to Do with It 1993) used prosthetics to simulate deformities.
Like most of the Horror of the day, Freaks is a tragedy of a people using what they have to make a living the best they can. They are not hurting anyone, they just want to be accepted. While essentially having the same “wanting to be accepted” theme as Freaks, American Horror Story: Freak Show gets there differently in that there are onscreen killing (out of anger or revenge) with lots of blood in vibrant color. Even in the freaks’ back-stories, which are in black and white, where American Horror Freak Show’s tragedies are often beset in bloody murders. Freaks’ black and white Comedy/Noir cinematography gave the light moments a real pop while the darker moments are really evil as shown in the transition from light, joviality to seriously dark, sinister in the mood of the reception sequence. The violence, with the exception of Cleopatra’s outburst, is either shadowed or implied, and there is no blood.
American Horror Story: Freak Show pays homage, albeit, in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, to other Horror movies such as 1978’s Halloween in episode three and a direct homage to Browning’s Freaks in episode twelve. Interestingly in American Horror Story: Freak Show, the freak faction plays in real time while the “Normals” world plays out in a Moulin Rouge-like, over-the-top vibe; Freaks plays out in real-time. With American Horror Story: Freak Show being a series, viewers get to see the goings-on over a longer period, which show the politics and inter-relationships between the freaks’ back-stabbings, literally. This is slightly different than Browning’s tale since he worked in a carnival as a kid, giving Freaks an authentic feel in a fictional situation in a certain span of time.
Times have definitely changed from Freaks generation to American Horror Story: Freak Show’s generation…and yet they have not. The freaks (or maybe the normals are the freaks) of the world would just like to be accepted by all through the generations. Unlike Browning’s generation, nowadays, the world accepts the different in public to a certain extent, but clamor for the spectacle on screen; hence, the cult status of Freaks and the ratings bonanza American Horror Story: Freak Show became.