You'll get a startling education from Tod Browning's 1932 circus horror Freaks if you think that deeply fucked-up movies didn't exist before John Waters. A tawdry tale of carnival "freaks'" brutal vengeance against two heartless lovers who exploit them, Freaks is not exactly a heartwarming or enlightening portrait of people with genetic differences and atypical physiognomies. However, the "freaks" are played by people with disabilities, and they do so with humanity (though they're filmed with unsettling fascination). Given how few portrayals of folks with disabilities can be found in non-medical contexts in classic film, Freaks remains an essential piece of film history, even if the representation isn't everything it should be.

by Joule Zelman
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Tod Browning
Wallace Ford, Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams