June 5th, 2012 was a dark day in the history of classic storytelling, when revered author Ray Bradbury passed away at age 91. Thankfully, he left us a staggering collection of immortal tales that will keep countless generations spellbound. Among my favorites is Something Wicked This Way Comes, arguably one of the finest dark fantasy novels ever written. That story made the jump to the big screen in 1983, and while it rightfully became a cult classic, it's just one of many memorable examples of horror cinema revolving around a carnival or traveling circus. When you get right down to it, there's hardly more fertile ground for horror than the spooky, noisy and often grim atmosphere of the carnival, with its pandemonium of loud music, flashing lights and garish colors, mixed with the grease and grime of antique (and probably lethal) ride machinery, the smell of soiled sawdust and stale popcorn and the musty shadows of the freakshow exhibit... and don't even get me started on clowns. In honor of Mr. Bradbury's masterpiece, I've selected ten classic (and not-so-classic) horror movies set in the mysterious, often dangerous and sometimes deadly world of the carnival. Grab your tickets – and your courage – and step inside!
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Bradbury's 1962 novel was his second book set in the fictional Green Town (based on the author's own hometown of Waukegan, Illinois), but actually began life as a film treatment entitled The Black Ferris, with screen legend Gene Kelly planning to direct. While that project and other prior attempts to film the novel fell through, it finally got the green light two decades later, when Walt Disney Pictures was testing the waters of more grown-up entertainment, and Bradbury was hired to craft the screenplay. Although Jason Robards was the best-known cast member at the time, the film would become a cult classic thanks to the brilliant performance of Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, whose demonic carnival steals the souls of townspeople by tempting them with their deepest desires, and who delivers awesome lines like "We butter our plain bread with delicious pain." Also notable is the appearance of genre legend Pam Grier as Dark's incredibly hot supernatural sidekick, a fanastic score by James Horner, and some serious scares for a PG Disney flick. (Bed full of tarantulas? Check!)
Although it took some time to gather its fanbase, Tobe Hooper's amazingly creepy 1981 flick now ranks on many horror fans' fave lists, somewhere below Hooper's undisputed masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While it's basically a slasher flick at heart, it's the unbearably sleazy atmosphere of the carnival setting that sets it miles above lesser entries in the genre, and although it's won a lot of acclaim for the grotesque monster makeup by Rick Baker, one of the creepiest aspects of The Funhouse is the carnival's gallery of loony workers, including William Finley as a drunk magician, Sylvia Miles as a haggish fortune-teller, and Kevin Conway as three different carnival barkers, each with a sleazier pitch ("They are authentic, and they are alive! Alive, alive, alive!"). For an even more twisted time, check out the novelization by Dean Koontz (originally written under the pen-name Owen West), which expands the characters' back-stories in such horrifying ways it makes the film version seem like a kiddie flick.
There's nothing to say about this immortal horror classic from the director of the original Dracula (whose career was nearly destroyed after the film was banned for decades) that hasn't been written a thousand different ways since the film's 1932 debut, but I'd lose my fan card for life if I didn't mention how important it is to the genre. The story is nothing special – just a hokey soap opera of unrequited love, deception and revenge – but it's the carnival setting that folks weren't ready for, revealing a wide range of human oddities, many played by non-actors with tragically real deformities. As a seeker of shocking cinema, I can only imagine what moviegoers must have felt when confronted with the nightmarish climax, which reportedly horrified test audiences so deeply the studio edited out most of the violent content, leaving the much shorter version available today. The film nearly fell off the earth completely until it started making the midnight movie rounds in the '70s, and it's now a perennial Halloween TV favorites.
Carnival of Souls
While it may have gotten a little stale from overexposure – crappy prints have been circulating through the public domain for decades – this low-budget feature from director Herk Harvey (whose career began with educational films) has a slow burn effect that increases tension scene by scene as the heroine becomes increasingly disoriented following a horrific car accident. The carnival of the title, set in the then-abandoned Saltair Resort in Utah (it's an event center now, and they book some pretty major music acts today), is portrayed as a mysterious netherworld where ghostly patrons dance to eerie organ music at midnight, and they want our leading lady to join in the festivities... forever. The twist ending may seem totally obvious today, but remember we're talking 1962 here. Besides, that same twist is still being lifted decades later, for everything from Jacob's Ladder to TV's Lost. Oops, I might have dropped a spoiler there. Ain't I a stinker?
Beloved around the world for his grotesquely beautiful cinematic experiments like El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker Alexandro Jodorowsky is one of genre cinema's most intriguing artists, and his films are cosmic puzzles that require an open mind (and often a strong stomach) to appreciate. Only once in his career did Jodorowsky venture into a more linear storytelling style, with this giallo-style thriller (produced by Claudio Argento, Dario's brother and fellow filmmaker) set in the conflicting worlds of a surreal Mexican circus and a local religious cult who revere a dismembered rape victim as their saint. As he does so well, Jodorowsky uses this backdrop to blend images of sex, sadism, mystic symbols and dreamlike imagery (including a haunting scene involving the funeral of an elephant). The final twist is reminiscent of Psycho, but with the director's own unique metaphysical touch, and it's somehow grim and uplifting at the same time.
The Last Circus
This bizarro epic from Spanish director Alex De La Iglesia (Day of the Beast, Perdita Durango) is a period piece which begins during the Spanish Civil War and continues into the latter days of that country's corrupt Franco regime. The story involves a bizarre love triangle involving two rival circus clowns and the beautiful trapeze artist who loves them both in very different ways... sounds like the makings of a quaint, sweet little romantic comedy, right? Aww hell no. Not only is this one of the balls-out craziest films about clowns ever made, it's one of the craziest films period. Exploding with graphic violence and kinky sex from start to finish, The Last Circus (the orignal title is Balada Triste de Trompeta, "The Sad Trumpet Ballad") is also tightly woven into key events in Spanish history, so it may be too much info to handle in a single viewing... but whether or not you can keep up with everything that's coming at your eyeballs, I guarantee you'll never forget what you've seen.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space
It's actually surprising that the sheer terror invoked by clowns wasn't fully exploited in a feature-length horror comedy until 1988, but at least someone finally had the guts to go out and do it... well, three someones, actually: the brotherly team of Charles, Edward and Stephen Chiodo, whose specialties in the genre fall mainly in the realm of monster effects, puppets and stop-motion animation. This is their only feature film to date as a producing-writing-directing team (though rumor has it there's a sequel in the works), but they made that one shot count with their tale of an alien race of big-headed toothy clowns invading Earth in their circus-tent spaceship, using popcorn guns and cotton-candy cocoons to harvest humans for food. While the plot doesn't quite come off quite as fun as it sounds, it's still a goofy good time, and these Klowns are definitely Kreepy as hell.
Carnival of Blood
This little grindhouse/drive-in junker almost didn't make my list, but I decided to include it for the pure sleaze factor, which is always a plus in a carnival-based horror flick. Filmed in 1970 at Coney Island amusement park, this is actually a proto-slasher tale, concerning a psycho who selects his victims from the park's rides, and who may have an arrangement with the carnival's creepy-looking barker and his deformed assistant Gimpy, played by a pre-Rocky Burt Young (who sports some of the least convincing burn makeup I've ever seen). This one is also unique on this list for being the only carnival horror movie where the patrons are more unsettling than the carny workers. Most of them are played by talentless amateurs, and they're so annoying you'll be rooting for the killer in no time. There's lots of blood, but it all looks like paper-mâché and ketchup. Young is credited as "John Harris," and I'm guessing he probably doesn't include this one on his resume.
This 2006 flick – part of After Dark Films' first "Eight Films to Die For" film fest – is a fun callback to Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse, which it resembles in many ways. The basic plot is the same: a group of hard-partying kids decide to spend the night in a supposedly empty carnival attraction, only to be picked off one by one. In this case, the "dark ride" is part of an amusement park allegedly about to re-open, and one of the main characters may have a mysterious connection to the unseen killer (not unlike Koontz's novelized backstory to The Funhouse, strangely enough). It even manages to capture much of the same ominous mood, with most of the story taking place inside the ride itself during off-hours. Where it differs is mainly in the execution (no pun intended): where Hooper's film featured very little gore, this flick sprays the red stuff all over the place, thanks to some outrageous makeup effects.
Bonus: The Devil's Carnival
To wrap things up, I should mention this new gothic musical horror anthology from the makers of Repo! The Genetic Opera – who apparently take the dark carnival theme to a whole new level. I haven't seen the film yet, but FEARnet's movie guru Scott Weinberg got a look, so be sure to check out his review!