- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

One of the most controversial films ever made that didn’t involve Mel Gibson or Michael Moore — Tod Browning’s 1932 circus-set fright fable Freaks — joins the digital ranks this week via Warner Home Video ($19.97). It’s our…

DVD pick of the week

The film’s bare-bones plot — beautiful trapeze artist femme fatale Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) woos, weds and slowly poisons lovesick midget Hans (Harry Earles), the better to lay claim to his lucrative estate — serves as a deft excuse to draw the viewer into “freak” society, with all its attendant bonds, codes, and rituals.

Director Browning recruited actual circus freaks to play essentially themselves: “Human Torso” Prince Randian, “half-man” Johnny Eck (later a well-known Baltimore artist), dwarf Angelo Rossitto, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, and other anatomical anomalies.

Onscreen highlights include the freaks’ lyrical sylvan frolic, the famous wedding banquet sequence wherein the outcasts accept a horrified Cleopatra into their inner circle, and the infamous fierce finale, when the victimized freaks wreak a terrible vengeance.

While a few critics at the time of the film’s release looked beyond the casting and recognized the future cult-movie’s worth, most reviled it as pure exploitation. Seen today, it’s clear that “Freaks” neither ridicules nor romanticizes its subjects, instead making the cogent point that they have all the virtues and flaws of anyone.

The artfully restored disc also supplies the film’s fascinating backstory via scare-film scholar David J. Skal’s informative audio commentary, along with the featurette “Freaks: Sideshow Cinema.”

More thrillers

Warner, meanwhile, ups the shock value with four additional thrillers. Like “Freaks,” the discs are tagged at $19.97 each.

• The Bad Seed, the genuinely creepy killer-kid chiller of 1956, adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play, includes audio commentary by star Patty McCormack and by Charles Busch, a filmmaker and longtime fan of “The Bad Seed.”

• Mr. Busch performs similar solo chores for the 1964 Bette Davis mystery Dead Ringer.

• The label also combines the 1960 atmospheric alien-infiltration tale Village of the Damned with its 1964 sequel Children of the Damned in a fresh double-feature DVD, with commentaries by author Steve Haberman and screenwriter John Briley, respectively.

The ‘A’ list

In a merrier mode, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment counter-programs with a fresh pair of farces ($27.98 each). Garage Days focuses on a grunge band that encounters no end of obstacles in its futile bid for glory. Extras include audio commentary by director Alex Proyas (of “I, Robot” fame), along with a deleted scene, featurette, outtakes, cast and crew interviews, and more.

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