DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Freaks

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, Aug 13, 2004.

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  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    [​IMG]

    Freaks



    Studio: Warner Brothers
    Year: 1932
    Rated: Not Rated
    Film Length: 62 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
    Audio: DD Monaural
    Color/B&W: B&W
    Languages: English
    Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
    MSRP: $19.97
    Package: Single disc/Keepcase





    The Feature:
    On August 10th, Warner Brothers released a wave of titles that range from a once banned movie - to horror films - to classic crime drama thrillers. Slated for release, the 1956 Mervyn LeRoy classic The Bad Seed, the Bette Davis thriller Dead Ringer (1964) a double bill feature, Village Of The Damned (1960) paired with the follow up Children Of The Damned (1963) and the feature film, the once forbidden 1932 film, Freaks. The film was directed by Tod Browning and stars Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova and Harry and Daisy Earles.

    Typically when you plunk in a 1930’ish disc and the MGM logo pops up, you’d expect a lavish musical production, that is after all, what the studio became so famous for. Not so with Freaks. It’s not very lavish, and it’s certainly not a musical. The film was first released in 1932 and was an abysmal failure and subsequently banned in England for more than 30 years because of the controversial casting and portrayal of real people with grotesque physical deformities.

    Not that the plot or the acting is of any real significance, but the story centers around a traveling circus where a pair of midgets Hans and Frieda (played by Harry and Daisy Earles) become embroiled in an interesting love triangle involving Cleo (played by Olga Baclanova) the circus trapeze artist. While Frieda is madly in love with Hans, he has his sights set on the beautiful high wire performer. Initially, Hans shows his affection towards Cleo by offering her trinkets and jewelry but she soon discovers that he is heir to an enormous fortune and realizes this is her ticket out of the circus and so she agrees to marry him.

    Frieda has Cleo pegged from the get go, and realizes she is doing nothing more than using Hans while she’s really in love with the circus strongman Hercules (played by Henry Victor). Soon after, Hans becomes desperately ill and Frieda and the rest of the troupe discover Cleo has been poisoning Hans in an attempt to get at his fortune. The rest of the “freaks” also learn what’s been going on and come to the aid of Hans as things suddenly go afoul for Cleo…

    In the 1960’s, Freaks developed a huge cult following at midnight shows. However, I can’t imagine the following really has anything to do with the quality of the storyline or the performances that were rendered. Let’s face it, on the surface, the film really does nothing more than to showboat these less fortunate individuals. However, once you scratch the surface you then become suddenly cognizant of the inner feelings for these less fortunate souls through the emotions they display. The troupe consists of several midgets, a living torso, whose main attraction is lighting a match with his teeth, Siamese twins Daisy & Violet Hilton, half bodied Johnny Eck, a bearded woman and numerous microcephalics (“pinheads”). But Browning’s intent was clearly to show the freaks as compassionate people who were indeed real, rather than inhuman grotesque outcasts, void of any real feelings.

    The Feature: 3.5/5
    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]



    Video:
    It’s obvious the original elements were in rough shape. The end result is a transfer that is very good, but not remarkable.

    Black levels are adequate and whites were just on the slightly gray side. Contrast was satisfactory although I found shadow detail to be somewhat lacking. The end result… was a level of grayscale that was rather limited.

    Image detail was mostly soft throughout the entire film, though there were examples of sharp image definition. There was one exception, that being the final “happy ending scene”. Obviously the source was in terrible shape resulting in a very poor dupey looking scene, lacking any real definition. Thankfully, this doesn’t last long. Even though there was a moderate amount of medium to coarse film grain present throughout the entire film, it lacked any real depth or dimensionality.

    There were significant amounts of dust and dirt blemishes as well as scratches and splices that persisted throughout. There were also frequent light specks as well as shimmer. Compression problems were never an issue nor was haloing.

    There are many impressive looking shots here to be found, unfortunately, there are many that appear rather rough as well. Under the circumstances, I’m sure WB did the best they could what the elements they had to work with.

    Video: 3.5/5
    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]



    Audio:
    Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of hiss present that persists throughout the film and there is occasional crackling as well.

    The overall tonal qualities of the track sound rather harsh and even crude at times. Many of the performers have various physical and debilitating abnormalities making their dialogue difficult to understand at the best of times. Unfortunately, I found myself going back a number of times trying to hear and understand what they were saying as it became edgy and shrill at times.

    As you might expect, there really is no dynamic range to speak of. Hey, the film is 72 years old, so given the inherent limitations of the period, this track is better than you might expect.

    Audio: 2.5/5
    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]



    Special Features:
    Surprisingly, this wave of Warner Brothers horror films contain numerous and substantive special features. Freaks starts off with:
    [*] A Special Message Prologue which is a scrolling text message that briefly outlines some of the history surrounding many famous individuals who were featured in circus and carnival type acts and gently warns viewers what they’re about to see. This option also appears on the main menu so you can access it easily without having to enter the special features area. Duration: 2:34 minutes.
    [*] Next up is a Commentary By David Skal, noted horror film expert who offers up a treasure trove of information pertaining to the film and many of its characters. He enlightens us with a significant amount of historical data that is indeed interesting. He also discusses the production and public reaction to the film. His commentary is quite informative.
    [*] Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema. Skal once again takes the lead here in addition to a number of other contributors such as circus sideshow historians including Todd Robbins who covers the film from start to finish. A number of the film’s characters are discussed. The feature digs pretty deep and turns up a lot of interesting and historical information. Definitely worth your time..! Duration: 63:21 minutes.
    [*] And finally, the Alternate Endings segment, Skal narrates through the film’s various endings. Skal describes the various revisions including the two examples where the ending now exists. Skal is obviously an expert when it comes to knowledge of the film and he certainly knows his stuff. Duration: 5:57 minutes.

    Special Features: 4/5
    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]

    **Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**



    Final Thoughts:
    Even after 72 years, whether intentional or not, Freaks elicits an uncomfortable feeling. While the film spends more time highlighting the evil of “normal” humans and displaying the morality and integrity of the “freaks”, one can’t help but feel for the characters and feel that a certain amount of exploitation was taking place regardless of Browning’s intent. However, a comment from one of the special features sums this up best; “far be it for us to decide what’s exploitive for others”… The film was certainly ahead of it’s time and was recently selected for the National Film Registry’s archive of “cinematic treasures”.

    As for a recommendation, that’s a tough call. This isn’t a film that going to appeal to everyone. However, I do believe it is a film that should be seen at least once. If you are already a fan of Freaks, the extras are terrific and the presentation is better than I expected, so there’s no need to proceed with caution.

    Overall Rating: 3.5/5 (not an average)
    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]




    Release Date: August 10th 2004
     
  2. Matt_H

    Matt_H Stunt Coordinator

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    watched this for the first time with my little brother last night. we really enjoyed it but thought the ending was a little flawed. the 1st original ending that goes on after the scream would have been nice to see.
     
  3. DaViD Boulet

    DaViD Boulet Lead Actor

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    Saw this film in college in one of my sociology classes. It had an effect on me and I'm glad to know I can get this film on DVD.
     
  4. Roger Rollins

    Roger Rollins Supporting Actor

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    For those who have seen FREAKS before, and/or have owned previous VHS or LD versions, Warner's new DVD is nothing short of astounding.

    It looks amazing compared to anything that has come before it.

    The reaction to this film was so controversial that MGM disowned it. Literally. They sold it off to a tent-show promoter. Only years later, in the 1960s, when FREAKS was recognized for its importance in cinema history did MGM buy the rights back...only by then it seemed all that had survived were awful film elements.

    I don't know what the source element was for this DVD, but it is quite impressive to me.

    The special features and overall presentation are excellent.

    The subject matter may be tough going for some, but I am a fervent admirer of Tod Browning and this film, and I can't reccomend this new DVD strongly enough. It's terrific.
     
  5. Anthony*B

    Anthony*B Stunt Coordinator

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    hey Roger, was the tent-show promoter Kroger Babb? I know he did that a lot but was he specifically the guy that put Freaks on the road shows?
     
  6. Michael Elliott

    Michael Elliott Lead Actor

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    I saw this film ten years ago and didn't care too much for it but really wanted to watch it again so that's why this was my most wanted DVD of the year. As far as the DVD goes, the transfer is remarkable considering how bad this film has looked in the past. There are still a lot of problems with the transfer but I believe the negative is lost.

    I thought the documentary was very good, although I wish some more time dealt with the controversy that the film caused. I believe the original running time was around 20 minutes longer so it would be interesting to know what all was missing. The great comementary track covers some of this stuff.

    As for the film...I still didn't get into it. I'd give it a [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG] I really don't care for Browning directing sound films, although I love his silent work. I know many people connect with the story but to me this is all exploitation. I really don't feel for any of the characters, which I think is what we're supposed to do. The ending is very effective however. I feel Browning did a better job covering the circus in THE UNKNOWN, which features an evil and heartbreaking performance by Lon Chaney, which was something needed here.
     
  7. Brian Kidd

    Brian Kidd Screenwriter
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    YAY! Finally! It will be mine.

    Gooble Gobble! Gooble Gobble! One of Us!
     
  8. Patrick McCart

    Patrick McCart Lead Actor

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    The DVD is fantastic... even for a 1932 film that wasn't preserved for a while.

    I find the video transfer to be top-notch, despite having some occasional scratches and lines. The audio is a LOT better than the previous masters. The documentary, alternate endings featurette, and the prologue make this an A+ DVD.
     
  9. Rob Gardiner

    Rob Gardiner Cinematographer

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    Did anyone ever catch the FREAKS reference in the early Simpsons episode? (The one with the company picnic)?

    How about this: has anyone read the loose adaptation of this film, published by Dark Horse Comics, written by the great Jim Woodring? One of the scariest things I've ever read.

    Looking forward to the disc. [​IMG]
     
  10. Joe Karlosi

    Joe Karlosi Producer

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    That's precisely the rating I gave ( [​IMG] [​IMG] 1/2). I'm a huge fan of early classics like this, but this was my second viewing and I remain underwhelmed. I think seeing these types of deformities was strong stuff back then, but we're more used to exploitation in the 21st century.

    As entertainment, I'd say at least half of its running time relies on pure exposition ("look at this," "look at how weird that is"). There's not that much of a story, and the overall effect is one of mediocrity. Most of the freaks weren't actors, so they're pretty camera conscious and hard to understand when they speak. This takes a lot of the enjoyment out of it and makes the film play more like a documentary than anything else. But I have to give Browning credit for having the guts to make this in 1932, and that alone elevates my rating to "above average" if not "good". The climax is quite effective.

    I wouldn't necessarily agree that there is no feeling for any of these characters, though; I did feel some sympathy for them, especially the "little person" who wants to marry the "big lady".
     
  11. Jeff_HR

    Jeff_HR Producer

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    Was there any more info offered about the footage that was cut from the "original" 90 minute running time? [​IMG]
     
  12. Patrick McCart

    Patrick McCart Lead Actor

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    In the "Sideshow Cinema" documentary, a few of the deleted scenes are mentioned... Prince Ranier rolling up a cigarette (before lighting it, which was kept), more of Cleopatra being ambushed at the end, and what happened to Hercules.
     
  13. Michael Elliott

    Michael Elliott Lead Actor

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    On the commentary track Skal also reads some dialogue that was cut out of the film. He also talks about the alternate ending(s) and some other scenes that didn't make the cut.
     
  14. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    great review and I am looking forward to own this at last
     
  15. Ben_@

    Ben_@ Stunt Coordinator

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    A brilliant release. i saw this four years ago on a beaten up VHS copy. What a thrill to finally see and hear the film in its best form! There are so many things I feel like I missed (granted, i saw it a while ago). For being such an abused film, they really did a great job.
     
  16. Voon Jiet

    Voon Jiet Stunt Coordinator

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    What was the reference? I can't seem to recall. Feel free to use spoiler tags if you must [​IMG]
     
  17. ArthurMy

    ArthurMy Supporting Actor

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    I, too, will agree with Roger and others that Herb Kane gave this transfer short shrift. It's really marvelous, IMO, the best this film has ever looked on home video. Even without that caveat, the film is from 1932 and I don't see where this transfer isn't amazing given that date. It certainly looks as good as many other 1932 and pre and even post '32 films I have on DVD. It's sharp, good contrast, and just remarkable. I would recommend that no one be scared off by the transfer - if you like the film you will be very very happy. Bravo to Warner Home Video.
     
  18. ChrisBEA

    ChrisBEA Screenwriter

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    I watched this for the first time the other night and loved it! I thought the set was excellent, great film.
    Very disturbing at points, mainly the wedding banquet, and the end.
     
  19. Rob Lutter

    Rob Lutter Producer

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    Holy crap... a David Skal commentary! I just finished his book, The Monster Show: A History of Horror in one of my film classes... it was absolutely excellent.

    I'll definately be picking up this disc. A fine film, and probably Browning's best film, IMHO. Browning really was an interesting character... I've NEVER seen another director so interested in telling stories about a subject he loves (the circus) and willing to sacrifice his CAREER for it (which he did).
     
  20. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    Hi Arthur:

    Thanks for your comments, although not surprisingly, I disagree with them. As the reviewer for WB on the forum, many (the majority...?) of the titles I review are B&W catalogue titles. I have a relatively healthy collection of discs among my personal library, many of which are vintage titles. I think it's also safe to say you'll find no other reviewer here (perhaps anywhere on the entire net) that is more forgiving of vintage/classic titles in terms of audio/video presentations. Having said all of that, when you read my text descriptions of my assessment, you'll see that I was fairly impressed with the presentation, that's not to say it doesn't have its share of problems (for lack of a better word), but its my job to highlight them (as well as the areas worthy of praise) for our members who are considering a purchase of such titles.

    To put things in perspective (most importantly) is to compare the vintage title to other titles of a similar era. The film also has to be compared with "itself"... i.e. does the majority of the film look terrific with only a few problem areas...? does the majority of the film look poor...? is it consistent throughout...? After we have a handle on how the film looks, how do we know the transfer process is or isn't the cause....? We don't. Rarely, if ever, are we privy to source elements, so we have to simply report what it is we're seeing. Going by other titles of similar vintage (by memory obviously), I feel the transfer falls somewhere in the middle (perhaps slightly better) of what is available, hence my better than average (3.5) score. Having said that, I realize this title was the red headed step-child of MGM and its treatment was less than desirable, but there are still blemishes and other concerns that warranted mentioning.

    Another factor worth considering is the display device. I'm not sure what you use to watch your discs, but on a 96" screen (at exactly a 1.70 viewing distance), as you can imagine, blemishes are going to be all the more noticeable.

    I think in this case, many of those who were looking forward to this movie were expecting an abysmal presentation based on the treatment the film has received over the decades. That wasn't the case, and in fact it is indeed, better than average. Generalizing here but assuming we save 1's & 2's for Alpha like (sub par) releases and 4's & 5's for The Bad And The Beautiful type transfers, I feel comfortable with the 3.5 score that I gave Freaks.

    Herb.
     

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