If you regard audacity as a quality to be admired in filmmaking, it's hard not to be a bit in awe of Tod Browning, who with Freaks made one of the grimmest and most offensive films of its era -- and managed this feat at MGM, the most glamorous studio in Hollywood. A pre-Code tale of love, deceit, and revenge at a carnival midway, with a frank-for-its-day approach to sexual gamesmanship and violent retribution among its characters, Freaks would have raised a few eyebrows under ideal circumstances. But Browning upped the ante by casting real-life human oddities in supporting roles, most of whom would never have appeared in a major studio film otherwise. You can't say that Schlitzie the Pinhead, Randian the Living Torso, or Daisy and Violet Hilton the Siamese twins are great actors, but their flatness merely adds to the film's impact. Incapable of "acting" in the conventional sense, they are what they are, and the blunt realism of their flat onscreen affect takes this film to a place that no other film of the day would dare to go. And while Browning uses the freaks for their shock value, he also allows them to live off-stage lives that aren't played for laughs; if their final revenge is ugly, it shows them seizing power in a way that would be denied them in nearly any other dramatic context. Freaks is generally considered to be the film that killed Tod Browning's career; but what's remarkable isn't that he would make only four more films after this one, but that he was allowed to make any more films at all.
by Mark Deming review