Although it has strength and undoubtedly sustains the interest, "The Unknown" … is anything but a pleasant story. It is gruesome and at times shocking, and the principal character deteriorates from a more or less sympathetic individual to an arch-fiend. The narrative is a sort of mixture of Balzac and Guy de Maupassant with a faint suggestion of O. Henry plus Mr. Browning's colorful side-show background.
Mordaunt Hall, "The Armless Wonder," in The New York Times (© 1927 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 13, 1927, p. 17.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer definitely has on its hands a picture that is out of the ordinary. The difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto—where it opened yesterday—or in, say, the Medical Centre. "Freaks" is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion. Its first audience apparently could not decide, although there was a good bit of applause.
Based on the life of "these strange people" of the circus sideshow, the picture is excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others. There are a few moments of comedy, but these are more than balanced by tragedy. Through long periods the story drags itself along, and there is one of the most profound anti-climaxes of them all to form the ending. Yet, despite this, "Freaks" is not a picture to be easily forgotten.
The reason, of course, is the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place. Tod Browning, the director, has brought all of it out as fully as possible, trying to prove that the "strange people" are children, that they do not like to be set apart. But they know they are, and in the sideshow is a spirit of mutual protection that holds if you injure one of them you injure all.
"The Circus Side Show," in The New York Times (© 1932 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 9, 1932, p. 7.