Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is a trapeze artist at the circus. She is known for her beauty but not her kindness. While already seeing the strong man, Hercules (Henry Victor), she becomes aware that Hans (Harry Earles), the small man, has come into a lot of money and decides to marry and then kill him to steal his fortune. Hans is in love with Cleo and heartily agrees to the engagement, much to the heartache of his previous sweetheart, the small woman, Frieda (Daisy Earles).
Cleo and Hans marry, but Cleo is scared when the 'freaks' hold a welcoming ceremony for her, chanting 'We accept her. One of us!' and passing around a goblet of wine. She insults them, chases them away and then proceeds to try to poison poor Hans.
With the help of Venus (Leila Hyams) and her clown boyfriend Phroso (Wallace Ford), the 'freaks' stop Cleo in her devious plan. But they can not stop the other circus performers exacting revenge on 'normal' Cleopatra, with rather frightening results!
A quite perturbing film, it all but ruined Browning's career due to its unsettling images which caused some audience upset. While still effectively shocking to today's audience, the film is more like an apt social comment and a record of circuses of old. Various scenes throughout the film demonstrate the day to day lives of the circus performers, which don't add to the plot particularly, but are an excellent addition and really demonstrates the lives and challenges the performers face in their daily lives.
The 'normal' people in the film are seen as the real monsters. However, the scene when Cleo is chased and captured by the angry circus people is very eerie.
Iconic and infamous, this film is an unusual black and white.
[Image: Metro Goldwyn Mayer]