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 make-up.
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.
The central story is of a self-serving trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who seduces and eventually marries a sideshow midget, Hans (Harry Earles), after learning of his large inheritance. At their wedding reception, the other “freaks” resolve that they will accept Cleopatra in spite of her being a “normal” outsider, and hold an initiation ceremony, wherein they pass a massive goblet of wine around the table while chanting, “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The ceremony frightens the drunken Cleopatra, who accidentally reveals that she has been having an affair with Hercules (Henry Victor), the strong man; she mocks the freaks, tosses the wine in their faces, and drives them away. Despite being humiliated, Hans remains with Cleopatra…
“The brief shot of the armless, legless Prince Randian squirming through the mud toward Hercules with a stiletto in his teeth remains an image of extraordinary horrific power even today. But this scene would not work nearly as well as it does were it not for the extremely sympathetic, humane portrayal Browning gives the freaks throughout the rest of the movie. No matter how drastically deformed or mentally deficient they may be, all of the freaks in this movie are presented as human beings no different, morally speaking, from you or me.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
Related: The Mutations aka The Freakmaker (1974)