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#681 - Freaks
Tod Browning, 1932

Follows the lives of the people who work in a traveling circus's freak show as a vain trapeze artist tries to get her hands on a little person's inheritance.

One of the earliest examples of a cult film has to be Tod Browning's Freaks, a tale about the lives of the people who work in a traveling circus. As befitting the title, much of the film's plot has to do with the people who work in the circus's freak show, which includes little people, "pinheads", a bearded lady, conjoined twins...you get the idea. Its prologue showcases an audience recoiling in disgust at an unseen sideshow attraction, at which point a carnival barker launches into telling the story behind said attraction. This segues into life at the circus and all the interpersonal dramas that unfold between the various employees of the company. Though there are a few different plots featured in this film, there's one that takes precedence above all others - that of Hans and Cleopatra. Hans is a little person who has recently received a considerable inheritance. When beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra learns of this inheritance, she conspires with her strong-man lover Hercules to lure Hans away from fellow little person Frieda, marry him for his money, and murder him.

As far as plots go, that's so simple that it barely fills out an hour-long picture. Fortunately, Freaks at least manages to pad it out reasonably well. Part of the reason that Freaks has held up really well isn't so much out of technical or narrative aptitude so much as the rather impressive humanism displayed in telling the stories of these marginalised folks. An opening disclaimer goes to great length to point out how the people who work in the freak show and anyone like them don't just deserve sympathy (which is vaguely condescending) but respect, and the plot bears that out. The aggressively cruel villains of the piece - gorgeous Cleopatra and musclebound Hercules - are living embodiments of able-bodied ideals, while the freaks themselves may not fit said ideals but are still far more capable of being friendly and likable. Their sense of community (as demonstrated in the infamous "one of us" scene) is palpable and even extends outside their fraternity, as demonstrated by the comical sub-plot where a pair of conjoined twins must deal with the conflicts caused by their different suitors. Even with its attempt to provide a more nuanced portrayal of sideshow freaks, it still can't help but show off some of their talents, with one of the film's most memorable moments being watching the "Human Torso" light a cigarette despite not having any arms or legs. It arguably qualifies as essential viewing, though I wouldn't exactly think of it as a horror film - it's so much more than that.