"Well you don't believe all that stuff about total genetics. He makes it sound like bad science fiction."
When Tod Browning unleashed the seminal, disturbing Freaks, on a Depression era audience, his film was met with a collective shocked gasp. Although this film is remembered by many as being exploitative of people with deformities, it is, more than anything, an examination of the deformed human psyche, the ugliness within us all. A nation already reeling from the worst financial crisis this country has ever known, not surprisingly, was not in a mood to witness the depiction of humans at their most base. Rather, it preferred the more escapist fantasies depicted in Busby Berkeley Musicals, Westerns, Shirley Temple films, and Gangster Pictures (in their rags to riches stories of financial success, Gangster Pictures were about as escapist as thirties movies got). Although Horror pictures also boomed during this period, these films worked to reassure folks that the sinister "others", seemingly at the root of America's problems, would ultimately be vanquished. The reigning sentiment in Hollywood at this time was, "We can make it through this if we all pull together."
Freaks was a wholly different beast, however. In this story, a woman attempts to seduce a circus midget, whom she is repulsed by, in order to kill him and steal his large inheritance. When the unaware folks in the circus freak-show announce their acceptance of her, she is horribly repulsed and openly mocks them. What horrible fools they must be to think that she would be one of them. After her murder plot is revealed, the circus freaks have their way with her in the most vicious, disturbing manner possible. Freaks seemed to be saying that morbid and rapacious greed, central to human nature, would be humanity's undoing. There are no depths to which people will not sink for the prospect of money. The setting of this film in a circus freak-show works only to enhance this theme. The very existence of freak-shows, after all, is predicated on the exploitation of and morbid fascination with human suffering, all for the purpose of making a few bucks. All are culpable. (One can only imagine how a depression era audience would have reacted to Browning's planned adaptation of Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?)
Of course, it would be disingenuous to imply that Freaks was a crowning achievement in the advancement of societal acceptance of the deformed. Not so much fully realized characters, the "freaks" in this movie, rather, act as metaphors. The emphasis remains on the otherness of these people (the difference being that the others win in this movie). In this way, Browning is not far removed from a carnival promoter. This is most evident in the brutal revenge scene, as the "freaks" are presented as rapacious, inhuman creatures. Appropriately enough, Freaks, although later becoming a cult hit, has had a mixed critical reception over the years, and banning in certain countries.
It is indicative of Freaks's sordid, disturbing reputation that it was not until the counter cultural sixties that this movie gained enough of an audience that imitators started to pop up, such as the David F. Friedman produced She Freak. When the British decided to take a stab at the subject matter with The Freakmaker, who would choose to direct this movie but the legendary cinematographer of such classy movies as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Jack Cardiff. Although society had undergone major upheavals in the years between Freaks and this British homage, it would seem that when it came to the depiction of so called freaks that attitudes had advanced only so slightly (Incidentally, despite his well earned reputation as a master cameraman, Cardiff opted not photograph this film, instead he employed the services of Paul Beeson.)
The Freakmaker centers on a latter day Dr. Moreau, Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasance), who, possibly inspired by The Thing from Another World, attempts to create a super-race of human/plant hybrids. One would think that a cross between a human and a super powerful animal would make an ideal candidate for inclusion in an army of super beings, but according to Nolter the ability to photosynthesize is much more impressive (not to mention exciting!). To gain the human specimens necessary for his experimentation Nolter enlists the aid of the Elephant Man-esque Lynch (Tom Baker), one of the leaders of a circus freak-show, who kidnaps Nolter's victims. Coincidentally, Lynch just so happens to kidnap students from Nolter's biology class.
As is the case with all mad scientists, Nolter makes a few mistakes on his road to the perfect being. Because he is a charitable fellow, however, Nolter donates these unusable specimens to Lynch's sideshow. When he is finally able to create the perfect specimen, this creature runs amok, eating people in order to live. When fellow scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris) uncovers Nolter's plans he attempts to put an end to Nolter before he can cause any more havoc.
Like Freaks, The Freakmaker uses many real life circus freaks in its cast. Also, as with Freaks, these people are frequently used in an exploitative manner. The film features, for instance, an extended scene in which a few of Nolter's students attend a freak show and gawk at the human oddities on display. We the viewers are made to be voyeurs in this circus show. This film does, however, attempt to imbue these characters with a certain amount of humanity. Lynch, for instance, although abusive of the other freaks for much of the movie, is later shown to be a complex figure. It is revealed that he is depressed about his lot in life and takes it out on the other freaks, whose presence reminds him of his own disfigurement. He is a self hating freak. However slight an attempt that this movie makes at affirming the humanity of society's outcasts, Elephant Man it ain't.
Indeed, in the film's story of a man's many attempts to produce genetically different killer mutants, the non-normal are meant to be viewed as, at best, pathetically disturbing, and at worse, inhuman killer creatures to be feared and hunted. At the risk of sounding like a PC whiny-baby, I should point out that it is a sad statement on the state of the movie industry in general that the few times in which the so called different people are used in movies, it is in horror movies (less so nowadays, of course).
Incidentally, the Netflix disc I received of this movie was so scratched that I missed a couple minutes worth of the movie. Who knows what happened in the section that I missed? Perhaps it was a scene of transcendent beauty and intelligence, justifying the exploitative depiction of human oddities in this movie. I am going to assume, however, that it is within these few minutes of missing footage that the freaks reveal their plans to eradicate all normies from society in a massive genocide. To put their plan in motion they ritualistically sacrifice three virgins and a puppy and then swear a blood oath to Satan. It is during their black mass that the head dwarf, Burns (Michael Dunn), delivers the following eerie monologue:
Oh benevolent and mighty dark Lord, it is to you that we look for guidance and vision as we are made in your powerful, wretched image. We are but humble servants in your vast army of the unholy. Give us the strength, oh Lord, that we may carry out your sinful designs. Our slaughter of London's infants will be the first step toward completion of your mighty plan. Let it serve as a harbinger of the dark days that lie ahead for all the God fearing normies. Let all who look upon our ghastly visages cower in fear. Thy will be done.More likely, however, the scene that I missed was one of a plant person offing Donald Pleasance.