The Best Horror Movie of 1932: Freaks

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The Best Horror Movie of 1932: <i>Freaks</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

With 1931 in our rear view mirror, the floodgates have now opened on the horror genre in American film, only rarely to slow up ever again. 1932 is marked by a preponderance of solid genre efforts, even if few of them really ascend to the iconic stature of either Dracula or Frankenstein. The volume, however, is pretty impressive.

On the Universal front, we’ve got Boris Karloff portraying arguably the most complex of the original Universal monsters, Imhotep, in The Mummy. A more languidly placed and character-driven film than either Dracula or Frankenstein, the romantic melodrama nature of The Mummy tends to surprise viewers who expect it to revolve around a shambling, strangler of a mummy wrapped in bandages. Indeed, Karloff is only truly bandaged for the first sequence of the film—for the rest of its run, he’s portraying the crafty Imhotep as he attempts to blend in with modern Egyptian society, complete with some beautifully subtle and intricately detailed makeup from Universal monster designer Jack Pierce. The “shuffling around and killing people” mummies, on the other hand, are a fixture of the film’s five sequels, which descend in quality fairly rapidly.

Elsewhere, Karloff appears again as another disfigured monster in the zenith of the Old Dark House genre … The Old Dark House … while his contemporary, Lugosi, is not to be left out of the fun, appearing in both influential “voodoo zombie” film White Zombie and in the essential early telling of The Island of Dr. Moreau, titled Island of Lost Souls. That film starred Capt. Bligh himself, Charles Naughton, in the role of the preening Moreau, in a screen adaptation that no other version of the classic H.G. Wells story has successfully approached—Lugosi himself is stuck as the absurdly hairy “Sayer of Law.”

Finally, 1932 also offers up one of many adaptations of human-hunting tale The Most Dangerous Game, and one more strong contender for the #1 spot: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s expressionist masterpiece Vampyr. That film, although more than a little bit inspired by the box office success of Dracula, shares more in common with the German expressionist classics of the decade before it, especially in its uniquely soft focus and fuzzy, dreamlike visuals. Critical esteem for Vampyr has only continued to rise in the 2000s, ultimately making 1932 a toss-up between the painterly weirdness of Vampyr and the transgressive story of Tod Browning’s Freaks.

1932 Honorable Mentions: Vampyr, The Mummy, The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, White Zombie

The Film: Freaks

Director: Tod Browning

There are few films of the 1930s, no matter how shocking their intent, that can still claim to possess any kind of taboo aura—except for Freaks, that is. The film is unique among those of its time in the disturbing nature of both its imagery and its all-too-true indictment of human misanthropy. You can call Freaks exploitative all you want—and let’s be honest, it really is—but it’s simultaneously one of the era’s most daring pieces of outsider art. Which is funny, considering it came out of MGM, of all places.

Freaks is the story of supposed lovebirds Cleopatra and Hans, circus performers who are due to be married. Cleopatra is a beautiful but penniless trapeze artist. Hans is a “sideshow midget” played by Harry Earles of The Unholy Three, and you can’t deny he gets much more of a plum role here—he’s not a man standing in for a baby again, at the very least. The only problem with the upcoming nuptials is the fact that they’re a sham—Cleopatra is only interested in the diminutive Hans for his money, and is planning to have him killed by her true lover, circus strongman Hercules. The only people standing between Cleopatra, Hercules and the fortune possessed by Hans are the latter’s small army of “freak” friends, from the Human Skeleton and the Bearded Lady to “Pinhead Zip” and “Koo-Koo the Bird Girl.”

The horror of Freaks comes on several levels. There is, to be sure, plenty of surface-level revulsion here. Its real-life performers come in an array of disturbingly unusual physiologies, sufferers of various genetic and developmental disorders that surely made their lives much more difficult. A modern audience (and indeed, the contemporary audience as well) is both repulsed by some of the faces on screen, and contrite about their own repulsion. These were human beings; many of them lifelong circus sideshow performers, totally out of their element appearing in a Hollywood film. There’s no way to make a horror film with these kinds of performers without it being at least moderately exploitative.

At the same time, though, the more lasting contribution of Freaks to horror cinema is its scathing criticism of society’s instinct to demonize and dehumanize those who are different. Cleopatra is of course an audience proxy in the way she looks at the freaks as sub-human specimens who exist to enrich her and bring her the things she’s always wanted in life—the things she believes she deserves, as a “normal” person. It’s little wonder that the status of Freaks as a horror classic began with the 1960s counterculture, as those who chose to turn their back on popular society, likely being labeled “freaks” themselves, rediscovered Browning’s film as a lost time capsule of similar sentiment. Of course, one wonders how much more shocking it all could have been had the original, 90-minute cut of the film had remained intact, rather than the surviving, 64-minute edited cut, which MGM produced in an attempt to salvage their losses after terrible test screenings.

Not that it helped Freaks at the box office. The film was a huge disappointment to its studio and for its director, and even in its edited state it remained so infamous in the years to follow that Browning—the man who had made Dracula only one year earlier—was practically blacklisted afterward. And yet Freaks, despite being less famous than his defining vampire film, is arguably the more vital work in 2019. After all, how many midnight, art theater screenings of Dracula have you ever seen? That’s the flip side of infamy: cultural permanence.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.