Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford, Henry Victor, Angelo Rossitto
Extras: Commentary Track, Retrospective Documentary, Theatrical Pologue

Ever since its disastrous first theatrical release during the Great Depression, Tod Browning’s "Freaks" has virtually defined the best – and worst – of the term "cult classic." The 1932 MGM release has been alternately vilified, excoriated, denounced, banned, rediscovered and heralded. Somewhere over its seventy-two year history, its very inaccessibility guaranteed immortality. Seen from today’s critical eye, however, it’s a so-so horror film that shamelessly elicits uncomfortable shocks while evoking an ambivalent pathos. Warner Home Video has extended the debate and shelf life of "Freaks" with their new special edition DVD.

Circus midget Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with the beautiful but heartless "normal" trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), even though he is already engaged to the diminutive horseback rider Frida (Daisy Earles). As Hans love for Cleopatra grows, she toys with his affections while having an affair with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). When Cleopatra learns that Hans is the beneficiary of a large inheritance, she quickly marries him and hatches a plan in league with the malevolent muscleman to claim Hans’ fortune…by removing Hans. When the plot is uncovered, Cleopatra and Hercules must answer to the Code of the Freaks!

At the heart of "Freaks" is a love story of Shakespearean proportions…and proportions are at the tragic heart of "Freaks." In many ways, the film was ahead of its time, showing in almost documentary fashion the plight of a culture whose only crime was a DNA short circuit. Director Browning (working with five writers, adapting Tod Robins’ short story "Spurs") takes great pains to paint a compassionate picture of how "pinheads," "living torsos," "human skeletons," dwarfs, midgets and bearded ladies have emotions, aspirations and dreams just like anybody else. But when required, Browning trumps the freaks card for pure shock effect. In one scene, we witness an armless woman (Frances O’Connor) eating with utensils and drinking beer from a goblet held between her toes while holding a casual conversation. Yet the scene does not forward the plot or character; it’s basically a sideshow peep. Where "Freaks" really succeeds is tapping into the seemingly unachievable reconciliation of loving with our eyes and loving with our heart. When the performers gather to celebrate the Bearded Lady’s newborn baby, it is a genuinely touching moment. Yet, when they chant "One of us!" to a horrified Olga at the wedding banquet, there is a momentary emotional connect to Olga’s revulsion – even when we recognize Olga for a human being far "uglier" than the people she mercilessly judges.

Presented in its proper 1.33 full-frame aspect ratio, the black and white transfer on the DVD marks a vast improvement from previous video incarnations. While not in the league of such black and white DVDs as "Citizen Kane" or "Sunset Boulevard," the image is the cleanest I’ve ever seen. The picture itself is slightly soft, with detail delineation good but not razor sharp. There’s still a fair amount of grain and blemishes throughout the source print, but gray tones and contrast have been greatly improved, especially helpful in the nighttime scenes. I noticed a few instances of <$pixelation,pixelation> in the transfer. Given the sometimes excessive grain, I’m not sure it could have been avoided. Again, I want to stress this is the best I’ve seen the film in any video format.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono soundtrack performs as expected: predictably low dynamic range, intermittently hissy but relatively free of distortion. Levels are a little low, as I had to crank the volume a few times to make the dialogue intelligible.

The audio may be predictable, but what did surprise me was the amount of special features Warner Home Video created for the DVD. First, there is the restoration of the "Special Message Prologue" from the premiere engagement that was subsequently lost as the film endured re-edit after re-edit. A scroll, framed against artist interpretations of circus sideshow performers, explains the film in a historic and "artistic" context. Caliban, Frankenstein, Gloucester and Tom Thumb are among the classic examples invoked. Much like the prologue to James Whale’s "Frankenstein," it plays more like a mood-setter than a dissertation.

Horror film expert David J. Skal (the force behind the excellent Universal classic horror DVDs) lends his considerable knowledge and expertise to illuminating the various historical, thematic and cinematic recesses the film inhabits. His feature-length commentary is quite informative, documenting the film’s creation, production and public reception/aversion. He also fleshes out some of the more subtle themes including the film’s sexual politics.

Skal is also featured prominently on-camera in the disc’s other significant supplement. Clocking in at a generous hour, "Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema" is a specially produced video documentary for the DVD. Skal, as well as circus sideshow historians Todd Robbins & Johnny Meah, actors Jerry Maren ("The Wizard of Oz") and Mark Povelli and authentic bearded lady Jennifer Miller, cover the film from every conceivable angle. (Myrna Loy was originally cast as Cleopatra, then begged MGM production chief Irving Thalberg to release her from the project!) Each of the film’s characters is spotlighted, explaining their participation in the film, their personal reactions, and the film’s current place in cinema history. It’s also one of the few DVD documentaries I’ve watched with real teeth to it: authoritative, fascinating and in many instances, poignant.

In the "Alternate Endings" segment, Skal charts the film’s multiple endings. The one that exists today was not the original ending – a more graphic, horrific denouement was previewed to an equally horrified test audience. Unfortunately, the footage is described but not shown, presumably lost. Skal describes the myriad revisions and showcases two examples where the ending that now exists was shorn even more! Again, Skal really knows his stuff and cinema buffs will eat this up.

Even today, "Freaks" is not easy to sit through. Yet three generations later, it still possesses the power to amaze, shock and challenge. Thanks to Warner’s new DVD, it’ll be around for a few more.