Director Tod Browning was way ahead of his time in depicting sideshow acts as fully fleshed-out, sympathetic characters for most of “Freaks.” However, in the film’s climax, he relies on the more sensationalist preconceptions of the freaks of the title, where they take their revenge on the couple who have been poisoning one of their group.
The murder of circus strongman Hercules is perhaps the most controversial scene, as the vengeful performers pursue him through the rain, brandishing knives and straight razors. In the film’s existing form, he is killed offscreen, but in the original cut, his fate is even nastier. Deleted scenes, now lost forever, heavily implied that he was castrated, as evidenced by a scene showing him now singing in a chilling falsetto.
The film in its original cut was so controversial that an audience member at a test screening threatened to sue MGM for causing her miscarriage. It was eviscerated by critics, with one reviewer predicting the oncoming production code in his review, saying: “In Freaks the movies make their great step toward national censorship. If they get it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.”
As a pre-code film, “Freaks” could get away with nastier scenes than those made in the Golden Age. However, it still faced censorship and was banned in some regions, including the UK, where it only became available in 1963. It had ramifications as well for Browning, whose career never recovered.