Freaks is a 1932 American Pre-Code horror film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a cast mostly composed of actual carnival (funfair) performers. The film was based on Tod Robbins‘ 1923 short story “Spurs“. Director Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow “freaks,” rather than using costumes and makeup.
Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. In the film, the physically deformed “freaks” are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the “normal” members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance.
Despite the extensive cuts, the film was still negatively received by audiences, and remained an object of extreme controversy. Today, the parts that were removed are considered lost. Browning, famed at the time for his collaborations with Lon Chaney and for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), had trouble finding work afterward, and this effectively brought his career to an early close. Because its deformed cast was shocking to moviegoers of the time, the film was banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years. Beginning in the early 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered as a counterculture cult film, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several movie theaters in the United States. In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
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