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Stars: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Henry Victor, Rose Dione, Johnny Eck
Director: Tod Browning
Still a shocker after all these years, and banned for many years in the UK, this film by Tod Browning, who made the original Dracula and directed Lon Chaney Sr (the 'man of a thousand faces') to many bizarre successes in stylishly creepy thrillers, the film centres on a circus in the days when bearded ladies, Siamese twins and other abnormalities were (ghoulishly) sideshow attractions.
Hard to watch at times, the film's nominal leads are Ford and the beautiful Hyams, but the focus is on the villainess, Cleopatra (Baclanova), the aerialist, and the scheming mistress of Hercules the strongman (Victor), who rapes Hyams, a friend of the 'freaks', during the film.
Sucking up to Hans (Harry Earles) a midget, she takes him away from his girlfriend (Daisy Earles) with more than one eye on the money he will inherit. At their marriage party, however, her tongue loosened by alcohol, Cleopatra tells the other 'freaks', Hans' friends, what she really thinks of them.
Although the film is a sympathetic portrait of the sideshow denizens, once the mainspring of its plot goes into action, the atmosphere gradually clouds over with evil, reaching a gruesome climax as the circus 'freaks' crawl through mud clutching knives on a dark and stormy night to exact revenge.
The scene is all the more effective for being revealed only in flashes of lightning by Browning, whose direction of the 'freaks' is quite brilliant, arousing our pity as well as our horror.
USA 1932. UK Distributor: Metrodome (originally MGM). Black and white.
64 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.
Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 3, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.
Review date: 07 Jun 2015