Few notes before we begin. As some of you know, my HD crashed awhile back, and with it went the software I usually use to bring you the movie/show review articles. Luckily, I finally got a new set, so tomorrow they'll be a new way-too-in-depth movie review. And as for the election, our nation is still without a president. I'd like to institute a ban on the word 'Florida' from this day forth, as I've heard the fucking thing spoken more in the past 24 hours than in the entire decade long run of the Golden Girls. There's your politics, now here's your pop-culture.
Over the course of time, sideshow freaks seem to have lost their global appeal. I guess there's a few reasons for that. Firstly, it's taboo. We live in a day and age where profiting over the mere death of someone is frowned upon. So if you can't make t-shirts for a fallen hero in good taste, chances are good that charging people to see the boy with the mutated leg isn't going to throw you into a senate seat. Furthermore, with those bastard doctors getting so good at what they do, the chances of us being graced with another human monkey or three-legged chicken boy are slim to none.
Honestly though, if you research this topic, you'd find a divided camp. The so-called 'freaks' themselves usually fully condone sideshows and the like, citing what's unfortunately true: nobody else would hire them. Abolishing it because its effectively demoralizing might seem like a grand idea, but let's face the facts, if you put Elephant Girl on register twelve of the supermarket, the girl over on register seven is going to have to work twice as hard.
As stated, and fortunately, cases of real life 'freaks' are pretty rare these days with medical science being where its at. Most sideshows feature 'fake freaks', people with tons of tattoos, piercings, affinities for snakes....in other words, freaks by choice. But it wasn't always so. Decades back, actually several decades back, there was a grim truth that science wasn't where its at now, and while it still was rare, it wasn't impossible for a human to be born with some pretty extraordinary features. The kind of stuff you see parodied today actually did exist before, and in some cases, there's been far more interesting (and often unfortunate) cases...some honestly difficult to believe.
With that in mind, the year was 1932. Freaks existed, and people knew it. They didn't want to know it, and some did everything in their power to insure that others didn't...but they were there. If you want a comparison that's a little more timely - its kind of like people denying that Sylvester Stallone ever starred in a movie called Demoltion Man. Wishful thinking. It happened, and so did the freaks. So, movie director Tod Browning sought out to make a movie about 'em - a movie with a (hopefully) entertaining plot...but more so than anything else, a movie to portray the true nature and lifestyle of these 'freaks'. In keeping with the 30s love for creatively chosen movie names, this one's called Freaks, and its a classic.
Before we get into what the movie was about, here's a little about its background: this flick was controversial from the getgo. And I don't mean 'controversial' as in...the director got in an on-set tiff with Shelley Long, causing him to replace her with Shelley Winters kinda controversial...I'm saying that there was people out there who did everything in their power - often succeeding - to keep you from seeing this movie. Why? Quite simply, because it starred disfigured people. Real disfigured people. Does the flick portray them as worthless, useless rogues of society? Absolutely not. If anything, this film was a great way to better understand those severely less fortunate than us. But in 1932, the world wasn't ready, and this movie was literally banned in dozens of nations across the globe.
In fact, its only been in recent times that our society's been open minded enough to allow viewings of this movie. You can say what you want over the progression of annihilating things like racial predjudice, gay rights, and human/cat marriages, but as a whole, the world is improving. Or its just growing too complacent to really give a fuck. Either way, I first found this movie by way of the mail-order company known as Johnson Smith, who you might know by their more current name, Things You Never Knew Existed. For some reason, the world's most famous suppliers of whoopie cushions and plastic vomit were also claiming to be one of the only distributors of this classic flick. So while it was 'banned in 30 countries', I guess Ft. Lauderdare, Florida, slipped through the cracks of righteousness. Eventually, I saw the movie for myself, and was immediately taken in.
Let's face it...we're not exactly a 100% moral and just society. We like seeing unusual and strange shit, even at the risk of someone else's misfortunes. Its sad but true, and there's a certain element of intrigue here...part of the 'enjoyment' of this film is seeing some of nature's weirder ways of going about things. Here's an example...again, we poke fun of things endlessly on this site...but I'm definitely not trying to do that in this case.
Unfortunately, I don't have much of a choice, because I'm cracking up over the prospect of my mother sitting next to snakeman here on a bus. Knowing her, she'd probably try to act real cool, treating him like he was any normal person, but failing miserably after asking him to hold her pen for a second. Still, these aren't cinematic tricks, the sideshow freaks shown in the film run the gamut - everything from your standard midgets, to people missing half their bodies, bearded ladies, monkey women, and more.
The Plot, and What The Movie Hopes To Accomplish: In the movie, one of the only 'normals' is a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra. Cleo hatched a devious plot to marry one of the sideshow midgets, Hans. Hans was somehow worth a large sum of money, and Cleo planned to off him so she could run off with the cash. So what we have here is a beautiful woman tricking a midget into believing she loves him, just so she can take his money. Amazingly enough, this 1932 flick doubles as the video biography of porn star Traci Lords.
Through the course of the action, we meet a number of freaks, and come to the alarming conclusion: you really can't judge a book by its cover. Sure, some of them are pretty fucked up on the inside and out, but others speak better English than politicians. Truly, they might look like freaks, but they're nice, genuine, real people trying to earn an honest living the only way they can. The movie does a great job of getting this across, making you hate Cleo even more and symphathizing with a midget you'd usually make table leg jokes towards.
Things progress, and Cleo proceeds with the plans and convinces the shrimp to get married. This brings us to a key scene in the movie - a ritualistic dinner where all the freaks gather around in a ceremony meant to accept Cleo as one of them. If you're curious as to why these freaks are going through this voodoo-ish ceremony: they've been burnt before. Cleo's not the first human with bad intentions of taking advantage of them. For them to accept her as one of da freaks, yo, it means they truly trust her - something she should be honored with.
Of course, she eventually screams, yells at half-man, and runs to her bedroom trailer. But even as the freaks begin to realize that Cleo might not be what she seems, midget boy is still in love with her. That is, until he notices her putting poison in his drink. That kinda killed the magic. So, the freaks band together to teach Cleo a lesson. That fucking she-devil thinks she's better than them? Well let's see how she feels after she is one of them. The freaks catch up to the escaping Cleo...and turn her into...this:
Buck. Caw. Yes, they turn Cleo into a mutant chicken woman in a velvet blazer. No, I'm pretty sure this was the movie's only 'special effects' freak. This might seem a tad harsh of a punishment layed down by the freaks, but c'mon, they've had enough. There's only so many times people can try stealing money from you before you turn one of them into a chicken. Proven fact.
Anyway, the movie ends there. That last scene is part of the huge controversy that surrounded this movie. Remember, this was the 30s, and the combination of the real elements of this movie mixed in which chicken lady is even a bit disturbing by today's standards. Not withstanding, though fictional, the movie will give you a much better understanding of the true sideshow lifestyle, and hopefully in turn teach you a little something about how we view those different from ourselves.
Verdict: Reccomended. Its a truly unique movie, as entertaining as it is informative. Amazingly enough, good ol' Amazon.Com has it for sale for under 20.00. If interested, click here to go purchase the film.
Now, for a special bonus, let's take a look at some of the famous banners from past carnivals and sideshows...they didn't always promise the truth, but then again, if you're dumb enough to believe there's a woman out there with three heads and the ability to transform into a monkey, you deserve to get suckered.
The only thing that could be more ironic than the electroshock girl being named 'Electra' is if Pretzel Girl actually sold pretzels. People could call her names and she could just write it off as sheer coincidence.