Glamorous tightrope walker Cleopatra marries a wealthy dwarf Hans and poisons him, prompting the brotherhood of freaks ('gooble gobble, one of us') to horrible revenge. This anecdote is told in a carnival to a crowd of gawkers who are eventually shown the grotesque chicken-woman Cleopatra has been turned into.
A disaster in its day and a career-scupperer for director Tod Browning, this carnival tale was glamour studio MGM's 1932 attempt to get in on the horror market recently opened up by Dracula, Frankenstein and company at Universal. Rather than calling on the make-up artistry which had transformed Boris Karloff into the Frankenstein Monster or the Mummy, Browning controversially cast real-life microcephalics, hermaphrodites and dwarves as his freaks.
The film shows obvious fondness for its carny cast, filling out the fable-like plot with vignettes about the love life of siamese twins, how the living torso gets about walking on his arms or the way an armless legless man lights a cigarette (NB: a roll-up!). It's oddly charming for much of its length, showing its human oddities as child-like innocents or heroic survivors, but pulls an unforgettably nasty nightmare ending that undermines everything else in the movie as the freaks crawl through the mud and rain to avenge the martyred midget, at last becoming the monsters the monsters the world thinks them to be.
The studio was so horrified that it sold the picture off to grindhouse distributors who appropriately toured it around sleazy tent shows under the title Nature’s Mistakes. However, it was revived in the 1960s - when, incidentally, British Censors rescinded their ban on it. In an era when the word ‘freak’ had a more positive meaning, it became recognised as a one-of-a-kind bizarro masterpice. It’s the film Lyle Lovett talks about in The Player.
Unclassifiable odd masterpiece.