Tod Browning’s 1932 film, Freaks, has a long and interesting history with the BBFC. The film was allegedly inspired by Browning’s own recollections of circus life and the ‘sideshow freaks’ that often made up a part of the draw for circuses in those days. When the film was released it was greeted with revulsion and disgust by both the critics and the public and enjoyed only a very short cinema run in the United States before being withdrawn by MGM. In the UK the film was refused a certificate altogether. At the time, the only categories available for films were U and A and it was felt that the film exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people that it claimed to dignify. Even the arrival of the H category for horror films later the same year failed to save the film.
It was 1952 before Freaks reappeared at the BBFC for classification. By then owned by a new distributor, Adelphi Films, the Director of Adelphi, Arthur Dent, wrote to the BBFC pressing the case for allowing the film to be released with an X certificate; in those days this would have allowed those aged 16 and above to see the film. He wrote ‘I do think that the sympathetic manner in which these characters are portrayed should go far to eliminate from the public mind the usual feeling of horror which is their first effect in circus side-shows…I do feel that the film deserves to be seen by the adult public.’ The film was again rejected, on the same grounds as in 1932 and Adelphi Films appealed the decision, arguing that the exploitation of human deformity in circuses, fairgrounds and variety theatres was a fact and that hiding the subject away “behind a display of moral righteousness” made it impossible to deal with such exploitation. The argument went on to point out that this depiction of exploitation was the very reason that the film ought to be passed with an X certificate, provided suitable cuts were made. The view of the BBFC remained resolutely that the film was inadmissible, both because the theme was one of the exploitation of human deformity for commercial gain, and because many of the scenes were deemed to be extremely unpleasant. It was argued that there was an unbroken succession of scenes of which the only point was the display of deformity and abnormality which no amount of cutting could tone down. The decision to reject the film was upheld.
In May 1963, with yet another distributor on board, the film was submitted to the BBFC for the third time. The distributor proposed a very limited and very carefully managed release, starting in only one ‘art house’ cinema in London, the Paris Pullman in Kensington, and promoted “without undue exploitation and sensationalism.” Thereafter the film would only be released outside London “in theatres of suitable reputation and standing.” The intention was to allow an adult audience to judge for itself whether the film exploited the abnormalities of the cast or whether it was actually a plea for understanding and compassion. The BBFC finally awarded the film an X certificate with the caveat that “people should be warned of the nature of the film so that those to whom such sights are displeasing will not see it.” The Secretary to the Board warned that it would be undesirable “to attract people who would wish to come and see Freaks for unworthy reasons.” Upon release the film garnered fairly favourable reviews from the Press. The following extract from The Times of 13 June 1963, perhaps summed it up best:
"The point constantly being made, one way and another, is that the real monsters of this world are not physical but mental; that the strong and the beautiful may well be much more horrifying than the maimed and deformed. In this sense it is less a horror than an anti-horror film; starting with our most primitive feelings of fear and revulsion at the abnormal and the “unnatural”, it works us round little by little to comprehension and acceptance and drains our horror away."
With its X certificate the film finally went on release 31 years after being made. Having a fairly limited appeal it appeared to have little impact on the public. One young man did write to the BBFC having been alarmed and distressed at the reaction of the largely teenage audience in his local cinema who apparently laughed at the sight of the titular characters. He left the film after only 20 minutes and was not there to witness the audience’s reactions to the film’s denouement and its clear message of compassion and understanding for those less advantaged members of society.
Apart from this one communication, Freaks essentially disappeared for another 31 years, when it re-emerged in 1994 for a modern video classification. It was viewed by a large number of BBFC Examiners and, perhaps unsurprisingly, divided opinion with recommendations ranging from a possible PG to 15. It was felt by some that the actual visual content of the film did not really go beyond the PG level, although it was acknowledged that the tone and treatment of the work probably indicated that a 12 would be more appropriate. Others argued more strongly that even a 12-year old audience would lack the necessary maturity and critical faculties to understand the message of the film and would most likely react with a mixture of amusement, disgust and shock. Younger viewers, it was felt, may be disturbed by what they saw since the abnormalities shown in the film were beyond the experience of most people, particularly the young. The clinching argument that finally took the film to 15 was based upon the climactic scene when the ‘freaks’ wrought their revenge on the bullying Hercules. This was the moment where, it was felt, the ‘freaks’ were actually used and turned into monsters. The black and white film, coupled with the scene itself – at night, in thunder and rain – gave it a highly sinister edge as the ‘freaks’ crept under a wagon and moved relentlessly on to finally stab and kill Hercules. The images of the legless man ‘walking’ on his hands, the limbless man making his way across the mud like some giant worm and the Pinheads – with vacant expressions – crawling spider-like towards the frightened Hercules, all combined to present a highly charged scene which, momentarily and probably unintentionally, risked turning the audience’s feelings of sympathy to feelings of fear, apprehension and possible even disgust.
The conclusion was that by placing the work at 15 the viewer was expected to have sufficient maturity and understanding to accept this sequence as part of the narrative and not an attempt to sensationalise or exploit the actors and their disabilities.
In 2001 the film was resubmitted for a theatrical release, and was this time passed at 12. There was still some discussion between examiners as to whether the film should remain at 15, but the ultimate argument for making the film accessible to a younger audience prevailed, with one examining summing up the general feeling by stating "It is a 1930's film and reflects social prejudices about difference. The film should be viewed in its historical context. As a BFI classic it will possibly be seen by film students and arthouse crowds. If we consider human rights today and the conscious social policies about mainstream inclusion of the disabled, there is every reason to support a young teen audience for this film. Social attitudes about tolerance and understanding build up slowly, there is no magic switched on the day one turns 15 or 18. This is an extremely interesting film which can help formulate the young Brit's tolerance to physically challenged people". The film was supported at the new, lower classification of 12 with of 'Contains theme of disability and some horror'.