This is a film that I am not sure what to do with. It is either a great example of outsider art or a n example of the worst kind of seedy, exploitative voyeurism.
There is no in between. Tod Browning was very brave in his use of circus performers in this movie. Like Atticus Finch, maybe the fact that he caused debate is the point, not whether he won a victory. I know most filmmakers would have been content to merely showcase the oddities, ridiculing them the way circus promoters did. Browning does not do that in his film. What he does do….well, even I am not sure. And that is a very frustrating thing.
There are several subplots in the film revolving around the performers and their relationships with each other. The main plot focuses on the midget Hans, who is in love with the trapeze artist Cleo. She responds to his advances, only to mock him behind his back with her real lover, Hercules. However, she discovers a fortune he has inherited and agrees to merry him. They have a wedding face (this is where the famous ‘we accept her, one of us’ speech is given) but she ridicules the rest of the performers and attempts to poison Hans. Her plot is discovered and the performers exact a gruesome revenge.
The film is about one thing and one thing only-the circus performers. There really is nothing about human condition or the emergence of an underclass extracting a revenge against those who wronged them, which certainly would have been relevant during the Great Depression. No, it is about the outsider community itself-not what it does. Therefore, the film is made based on how they are treated.
Now, I will applaud Browning for not taking the route that is all too familiar today-emphasizing that the performers are people and they need to be understood and allowed into our world. The people seem content to exist in the world they live in. The freaks (as they are called time and time again in the film) are not looking to join our world. They have their own community. Anyone from our world who enters theirs is the intruder, not the other way round. What this means is that no one in the film talks down to the freaks-this is normal. Two conjoined twins marry two different men who live separately. Absolutely nothing is said about their living arrangements or how they met (The twin does not appear to know her husband’s fiance). More importantly, the freaks all dress in exquisite clothes and appear to live very well. They look very happy and content in their existence. Perhaps emphasizing their deformities would have taken away from their happiness. That’s certainly what happened in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
But…the fact that he does not emphasize them almost gives the film a ghastly surreal quality. The way Hans speaks (although this may be due to the decaying audio track) he sounds like a toddler. The ending is quite frightening and shows how low the freaks can sink. It is more likely to alienate people than convert them. Yes, it does work (the true ending does-the version I saw tries to downplay it by including an alternate ending that looks like it came from a completely different film). But what of it? If the idea is to make the freaks appear normal, then why show such a disgusting display of their power? Why show them in “normal” settings when it turns us back into the voyeurs that were trying to be criticized?
Yes, it is brave that Browning insisted we make up our own minds about the topic. But considering what the topic is, a little more guidance would have been helpful. Still, the film does contain some truly shocking moments and that ending is one of the most macabre I have seen. So I do recommend it. But, like many other horror films, I wonder if it truly accomplished all that it could have.