Freaks is an infamous film that was called "immoral" and "perverse" on its release. It was banned in Britain for over 30 years, and still is in some parts of the US. Various Hollywood figures described Browning as "a sadist" and "nothing" after Freaks met with a wave of disapproval, and his once-prolific career came to a bitter end. He retired a few years later and refused even to watch a movie during the later part of his life.
Freaks is based on Tod Robbins' short story "Spurs." After the success of Browning's Dracula, MGM head Irving Thalberg approached Browning with the idea to make the "scariest movie ever." Robbins had written Browning's earlier The Unholy Three, and the dwarf star of that film, Harry Earles, recommended "Spurs" to Browning. The version we see is an abbreviated form, because audience outrage at a test screening caused some material to be cut from the film, footage which remains lost. Freaks has influenced the work of David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog, Tim Burton and David Lynch. Note Lynch's tendency to startle with physical disability and to employ midget characters, and Cronenberg's fascination with body horror.
Circus freak shows disappeared over the middle part of the 20th century, and their place is believed to have been taken at least partially by exploitation films. Freaks itself was eventually licensed to distributor Dwain Esper for release on the exploitation film circuit under the titles Forbidden Love and Nature's Mistakes. This is a perfect example of a film that blurs the distinction between art and exploitation. Exploitation is the very subject of the film, which is lurid in presentation. All of the main and supporting characters are introduced in an opening twenty minutes of comedy and melodrama that contains about a minute's worth of plot establishment. The rest of it gives the audience a leisurely chance to gawk at the microcephalics, conjoined twins, little people and other sideshow characters.
Browning himself had worked as a carnival clown and as the "Living Hypnotic Corpse"; sideshow exhibit. The film is sympathetic to its characters, but not so sympathetic as to discourage the viewer from staring. It exploits the performers' disabilities and gives audiences license to gawk and stare. The camera lingers as an armless lady uses her feet to drink from a glass and as a limbless man lights a cigarette with his mouth. A preamble intended to evoke sympathy for the freaks is often assumed to be a statement of Browning's message, but was actually added later by Esper and was not a part of the original film. The characters do maintain dignity, as they accept their roles as performers but demand to be treated with respect in their personal relationships. There is nevertheless a double-mindedness about this: Hans asserts his manhood, but he's not mature enough to recognize how dismissively he is treated by Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist on whom he has designs.
The performers are tight-knit. They are aware of their status as outsiders to society, but they have their own society to which outsiders are not readily accepted. Cleopatra, along with certain other characters, maintains a condescending attitude toward the sideshow workers throughout the film, and is resented by the performers as "not one of us." This changes when she becomes engaged to Hans. She takes offense at the performers' acceptance and splashes them with the contents of their communal goblet instead of drinking from it.
The mood turns dark when Cleopatra learns of Hans' fortune and plans to kill him. All lightheartedness disappears from the film after the wedding scene, as Hans takes ill. Melodrama is then replaced with tragic, Shakespearean drama. Cleopatra and her strongman lover, Hercules, live under the constant watch of the performers. Eyes peer out from underneath every circus wagon. Her condescension leads to her downfall, because the performers are neither stupid nor as innocent as she assumes. They may be a happy family, but are a well-armed and vengeful family who will not let harm come to one of their own without extracting a bloody price.
An ending mansion scene was added later at the studio's insistence that the film have a happy ending. Why was this film so shocking to audiences? It has some genuinely horrific moments, and may be more or less revolting depending on a viewer's sensitivity toward physical abnormality, but it isn't necessarily high-octane nightmare fuel. It inverts the beauty concept by making the freaks heroes while the conventionally beautiful woman is the villain and is turned into the most shocking of all the freaks. That may be Hollywood's biggest nightmare, but not necessarily a hot-button issue elsewhere. Most likely, the film's depiction of a violent overthrow of the social order was seen as a dangerous message. This was a mere decade and a half after the Bolshevik revolution, and here a privileged Russian-accented star is overthrown by a scary horde of lower-class characters. That is the film's real shock and threat.