Word on the interwebs is that AMERICAN HORROR STORY season 4 is going to be set in a Carnival or play with the idea of a Circus-theme. I’ve been craving the AHS touch on a carnival ever sense the appearance of ‘Pepper’ in Season 2. If you don’t think she was modeled by something out of Tod Browning’s FREAKS, you need to do your homework. While there is still no “official” word from Ryan Murphy confirming the season’s theme, the Internet is already swarming with theories, fan art, and dream casts. Circuses and Carnivals play a very prominent role in the history of American entertainment, but it’s sadly becoming a dying art form. I can’t even remember the last time a carnival came to town and allowed me to get funnel cake drunk before trying to pretend I couldn’t see the missing screws on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Over the years, horror movies have dabbled in the world of carnivals but I know I’m not the only one wishing that there were more to add to the pantheon. Bright lights, a cheerful atmosphere, and tons of sketchy people coming through your town to steal your money are an instant recipe for terror.
10) FINAL DESTINATION 3
Majority of the movie takes place outside of the carnival, but the intrusion of the story and the entire motivation for all of the actions are rooted in a terrible roller-coaster accident that our main characters “survived.” The safety of carnival rides has always been somewhat questionable, and FD3 handed us a visual nightmare of the thoughts that run through everyone’s heads for just a second once some guy with a Master Shake tattoo checks our seat belts.
09) MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOODThis is a film I’ve only seen once and one I desperately need to revisit. Much like AMERICAN HORROR STORY, this is a film that I like to call a “wall” film. Meaning, the film maker took a bunch of ideas and threw all of it at the wall and added into the story whatever would stick. A carnival tale with vampires, ghouls, cannibals, carnies, and some questionable plot decisions, MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD still boasts a die-hard (regardless of how small) fanbase. Although the flick is incredibly polarizing with its audiences, this is an incredibly confusing albeit fascinating slice of 70s cinema.
08) FREAKEDMore comedy than horror, the directorial debut of Alex Winter delivered a funny and twisted look at a modern sideshow attraction. This is a film that I find somewhat impossible not to love. Keanu Reeves plays a dog-boy and Mr. T plays the bearded lady. Heavily fueled by the MTV generation of LIQUID TELEVISION and THE IDIOT BOX, this surreal little flick contains a slew of mindblowing monster designs and some of Tony Gardner’s best makeup work.
07) VAMPIRE CIRCUS
Hammer Horror films as a whole are somewhat of a mixed bag, and VAMPIRE CIRCUS is sort of like the raisin pieces you pick over in favor of the chocolate. Personally, I find VAMPIRE CIRCUS to be a ridiculously fun trip into the weird Hammer releases of the early 70s, but I completely understand the hate. After a town is struck with a series of murders, the villagers of Schtettel kill the perpetrator, Count Mitterhouse. Fifteen years later the Circus of Nights appeared in the plague-ridden village but they have come to Schtettel to fulfil the Count’s last words! Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
06) SANTA SANGRE
After witnessing the death of his circus ringmaster father and the attack on his religious mother, a young man named Fenix is sent away to an insane asylum. When he finds himself free from the asylum he decides to exact his revenge on those that killed his father and disfigured his mother. The storyline on paper sounds a bit contrived, but SANTA SANGRE is a fascinatingly original film packed with psychological torment and intense violence. The film is part flashback and part flash forward, with the flashback sequences showing Fenix’s life in the circus as a child musician. A psychedelic art film, SANTA SANGRE encompasses unique aesthetics while delivering a terrifying mind-warp.
05) THE DEVIL’S CARNIVALI’ll be the first to admit I enjoy this movie more than the average viewer, but there’s something so intriguing about Darren Lynn Bousman’s THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL. Hot on the heels of REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA, TDC is an abstract musical that’s also somewhat of a live theatre based anthology. The storytelling is frenetic and the spectacle of the film is absolutely breathtaking. The story follows three souls cast out of heaven with their fate determined by the devil in his carnival themed purgatory. It’s visually stunning, a quick watch (it’s only 55 minutes), and provides some really catchy songs. (I’m all about “Trust Me” and “In All My Dreams I Drown.”)
04) ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?: THE TALE OF THE LAUGHING IN THE DARKPeople have been praising the last few years for the overwhelming amount of quality horror television programming, but any 90s kid knows that our childhoods were swamped with child-horror TV. Every day after school, I would rush to do my homework to guarantee that I wouldn’t miss a single episode of ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? Campfire horror stories come to live, AYAOTD? was a sanctuary for the weird kids. An episode that haunted my nightmares and has stuck with me long after the show’s cancellation is the famous introduction of Zeebo the Clown in THE TALE OF THE LAUGHING IN THE DARK. Teaching kids a lesson not to steal props from funhouses with the threat of a demented clown was pretty damn persuasive…but that laugh will follow me to my grave.
03) CARNIVAL OF SOULS
A major influence on both David Lynch and George A. Romero, the atmospheric CARNIVAL OF SOULS is one of the most iconic films of the carnival-horror canon. The film lacks special effects and instead relies on creating a terrifying air through strategic cinematography and music. The film was in the public domain for a while, meaning there are a lot of different “cuts” running around, but Criterion recently released the film in its proper format and makes for an eerie night of film. (PS: Do yourself a favor and avoid the remake. Just do it.)
You gotta love pre-code movies, amirite? From the mind of the man who brought DRACULA to the big screen, Tod Browning’s FREAKS tells the story of a freak show…using real “freaks.” Obviously, that is no longer the politically correct term, but Browning utilized actual sideshow performers rather than use makeup effects. Although many people find the film incredibly offensive, FREAKS portrays the “freaks” as trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the “normal” members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the side-show performers to obtain his large inheritance. The film is a classic and easily one of the best carnival-themed horror films in existence.
01) THE FUNHOUSE
Tobe Hooper personified what a “fun” horror movie is with his 1981 gem, THE FUNHOUSE. After somehow winning some stuffed animals from those rigged carnival games and checking out the sideshow attractions, four friends follow through on dare to spend the night in the spooky carnival funhouse. Thinking things couldn’t get any worse, the four witness a murder being committed by a grotesquely deformed killer and find themselves running for their lives in the carnival. THE FUNHOUSE is one of the few carnival horror films that actually utilizes the carnival to its favor. The vibrant look creates an unsettling atmosphere compared to the gruesome faced killer, and delivers an entertaining and memorable viewing experience.