It's actually one of my absolute favorite movies. I saw it about a year ago on TCM and went out and had to have it. Actually, I had been staring at the VHS cover since I was a child at our local Blockbuster, and had always had it in my mind that I really wanted to see it (didn't have the guts to rent it as a child), but jumped on the opportunity when it was shown on TCM.
I have a great deal of respect for the lives of many of those people. Some of them were truly talented individuals far beyond their supposed handicaps. I mean, for crying out loud, look up Johnny Eck, the Hilton twins, Angelo Rossitto, the Doll Family, Prince Randion, Frances O'Connor, etc... These were people who truly lead fascinating lives or were pinnacle examples of human adaptation.
In fact, I became such a fan of Johnny Eck, I made a point of almost completely revamping and writing his Wikipedia page. My second favorite is definitely Angelo Rossitto (his facial expressions make the film--both the scene with the Loving Cup getting splashed on him and looking through the window at Cleopatra's treachery).
I've always been attracted to stories about outsiders (while certainly nothing close to what these people experienced, I have Asperger's Syndrome; thus, I've always sort of connected to the outsider on that level).
The fact that Tod Browning ran off to join the circus when he was 16 years old and became a carny, himself, really shows in how he depicts these people (he was deeply familiar with the acts and picked out the most talented and famous performers of the era for his cast). These people were his friends (there are behind-the-scenes anecdotes about how he always had Johnny Eck at his side and always had him sit next to him) and people he had a great deal of empathy for. Even though the audience at the time couldn't see past the "monstrosity", he went out of his way to make a picture that, while it doesn't shy away from the concept of good people doing bad things because of the very human need for emotional vengeance (part of the concept of showing that these people are just like us), it also made a very strong point of making the "freaks" or "monsters" the characters that you are rooting for wholeheartedly.
The ending is basically a reverse of Frankenstein, except with the righteous mob being the monsters, while the normal folk are the real monsters. Edward Scissorhands is exactly the same concept of reversing the famous Frankenstein scene, except the townspeople are evil and the monster is good. Edward Scissorhands actually strikes me as probably the closest we'll ever get to having a story that genuinely has the same message as Freaks (right down to the idea of Edward killing Jim to protect someone he loves--very similar to the freaks mutilating Cleopatra and Hercules because they tried to poison one of them).
It's not what you are on the outside, but who you are on the inside. That's the message. And it was a message that was so far ahead of its time that it wasn't until decades later that the film could be properly viewed and understood.
The film also is uncomfortable with people who still think that these people shouldn't be seen OR even born. The caretaker at the beginning of the film even says that they should have been killed at birth. And sadly, it's a practice that is still going strong to this day, except that eugenics and leaving an undesirable child out in the wilderness to die has been retitled abortion. It makes the accomplishments of the people in this film (really, look some of them up) really stand out that much more. Just because someone looks pretty on the outside doesn't mean that they'll be pretty on the inside. And just because someone is born with some undesirable trait, doesn't mean they don't deserve to live the best lives possible for them. And many of this remarkable cast truly did make the best possible out of their lives.
One thing that MUST be watched with this film is the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that tells about the lives of each of the performers. It's really half the film.