"Freaks" generally fall into two categories: those who are born that way, and those who make themselves that way. The public has been fascinated with genetic abnormalities for centuries, with dwarves and others with genetic deformities offered to kings and queens for amusement. Later, freaks were gathered into sideshows for traveling carnivals. One of the earliest examples of freak cinema is Tod Browning's legendary Freaks, which is one of those few films that truly lives up to its notoriety.
I should note that, for the purposes of this article, no disrespect is meant by the term "freak." I have been unable to come up with a simpler, less pejorative term.
Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks is a chilling classic that horrified movie-goers and destroyed the Dracula director's career. The film is set in a circus where Cleopatra, the trapeze artist and a "normal" marries Hans, a dwarf who is part of the sideshow. The other "freaks" accept Cleopatra in support of Hans - until they discover that she is poisoning Hans so she can collect his vast inheritance money and run away with her true love, the circus strongman. The freaks stage their revenge by turning the beautiful woman into "The Bird Lady," a deformed outcast who could only ever be accepted by sideshow freaks.
At the time of its debut, Freaks was notorious for Browning's decision to cast real-life human oddities as the "freaks," including Johnny Eck, the half-man, Daisy and Violet, the conjoined twins, Prince Randian, the human torso, and Schlitzie the "pinhead." The film horrified audiences and authorities felt the deformed actors were something to be pitied and hidden away, despite the fact that the "freaks" had pride in who they were and held themselves to a strict code of honor. The movie was quickly pulled from circulation and outright banned in the UK for thirty years. It has since been hailed as a classic, and is the definitive example of "freak cinema."
David Lynch's first feature-length film is a doozy, and most famous for two things: the iconic image of Jack Nance (who played the film's lead, Henry) with his wide-eyed stare and Bride of Frankenstein hair; and the deformed "baby." In classic Lynch style, the surreal and industrial Eraserhead tells the tale of Henry, who discovers his ex-girlfriend Mary is mysteriously pregnant and gives birth to an extremely premature, extremely deformed baby. Mary cannot deal with her diseased newborn and quickly leaves it in Henry's care. The child grows sicker and sicker until all it can do is projectile vomit. Henry finally decides to unwrap the bandages that cover the baby's torso, and discover the bandages were all that were keeping its organs in place. Some critics consider Eraserhead to be a frightened response to reproduction. Others see it as an ode to "the freakshow of life." It is widely accepted that the baby, living in an industrial, polluted environment, is meant to represent the thalidomide babies of the late 1950s and early 1960s (thalidomide was an anti-nausea drug given to pregnant women that later proved to cause hideous, often fatal birth defects and deformities).
This grimy, nihilistic slice of exploitation is probably best known for its mutant baby, though the baby is a small part of the film. Frankie is an unemployed Vietnam vet with a mutant "napalm" baby (presumably deformed from the chemicals Frankie was exposed to in the war), another on the way, a spiteful wife, and a hovel that they about to be evicted from. The majority of the film is spent following Frankie through the urban blight, pimps, hookers, junkies, dealers, and all manner of thugs. Frankie decides the only way to save his family is by murder-suicide - which includes putting his baby in the oven. The baby looks like a cross between the Eraserhead baby and the painting The Scream - made out of modeling clay. The genderless, hairless "baby" is capable of nothing but loud, ear-piercing screams, so it is strangely fitting that Frankie saves the most brutal murder for his baby. He shoots the baby once, then puts it into the oven and cranks it up before he blows his own brains out.
Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo is not strictly a horror movie; however, it is weird and fucked-up and carries many feelings of foreboding. An "acid western," it loosely tells the story of El Topo ("The Mole," played by Jodorowsky) as a man who sets out across the desert, abandoning his son (played by his real-life son) with monks and going on a quest to defeat the four top gunslingers in the land. Jodorowsky's films are frequently inhabited by actors with an array of physical handicaps, but El Topo always stood out to me for the Double Man. A legless man straps himself to the back of an armless man, creating one superhuman. The Double Man was the servant of the first gunslinger to be killed, and he himself is killed quickly thereafter, making his role small and relatively insignificant, but it left an indelible impression on me as a teenager.
Basket Case is easily the most light-hearted entry on this list. It is a super-cheap, super-cheesy exploitation flick, where the icing on the cake is the lumpy, twisted "basket case." Duane comes to the Big Apple with a knapsack and a large lidded basket. This basket contains Belial, Duane's "twin" brother, who resembles a melted puddle of a human being. Belial was a parasitic conjoined twin that their father hoped would die when he was separated from Duane. No such luck for daddy. Not only did Belial survive, a scalpel couldn't sever Duane and Belial's deep bond. So now Duane travels with his "brother," communicating with him telekinetically, until Duane realizes that Belial wants to harm Duane's lady friend. Duane severs their connection for good.