Carnivals are magical. Movies like The Notebook, Big, The Music Man and Grease have captured, however briefly, the fun, the romance and the cavalcade of magicalness therein. That's all well and good. More often than not, though, I associate carnivals with weirdo art films, horror movies, HBO's long gone Carnivale and American Horror Story's Tod Browning-inspired season, Freak Show.
I'm not saying carnivals can't be innocent, mirth-filled places. They can be — I just prefer to think of them as seedy places, hence this list of carnival movies leaning into the darkness.
A lot of bad ideas start at a carnival. Remember when Reese Witherspoon decided to go one step further with Mark Wahlberg in the 1996 psycho boyfriend flick Fear? See?
Another bad idea that could only come up at a carnival is the idea of staying in a funhouse overnight for kicks. Those four jerkwad teens, Buzz, Rich, Liz and Amy in Tobe Hooper's 1981 film The Funhouse did precisely that. It doesn't go well when they witness a murder by one of the sideshow attractions, Gunther. A glorious slice of gruesome nuttery that likely inspired…
Set in 2018, a group of teens are picked off by a guy in a creepy mask that takes advantage of the setting's chaotic nature. That's the story. You've definitely seen it done better but there are some rare moments of macabre to be found in spite of all the stupid jump scares.
Carnivals have an avant-garde nature to them, featuring colorful attractions that are only matched by the colorful characters and colorful situations. Speaking of avant-garde, it's only natural that director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Holy Mountain) would focus on a character like Fenix. At one point, the son of a circus performer witnessed his mom getting her arms hacked off. One day after escaping an institution, Fenix bonds with his mom — now a cult leader. In typical Jodorowsky fashion, things get even more gruesome and nutty.
Carnival of Souls
Poor Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Maybe if it weren't for that car accident, she wouldn't be haunted by visions of white faced ghouls following her and that deserted carnival in the distance. Industrial films director Herk Harvey, the man behind such films as Why Study Industrial Arts and Shake Hands with Danger made this glorious 1962 one-off that, I'm assuming, influenced M. Night Shyamalan a wee bit.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
What's a shame about older movies like Carnival of Souls is that, outside of the snobby nerd circles, they rarely get much modern day acknowledgement. Speaking of older movies, no elitist film snob would live a complete life without having seen Robert Wiene's 1920 silent film about a sideshow hypnotist that may be using a sleepwalker, Cesare, to do some murdering. There are some fun twists and turns to be found while traversing all the German expressionism on display in Wiene's creepy film. That century-old film still inspires the likes of Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses to this day.
While we're on the topic of nutty let's talk about Gary Busey. He plays Bozo, a clown that sits on one of those contraptions that drop the sitter into a filthy mini pool of water when a person throws a ball at the target — a dunk tank. Anyway Bozo hooks up with a young woman, Donna, who looks a lot like Jodie Foster. Enchanted by that encounter, Donna decides to run away from home and join the carnival. She meets Bozo's carny buddy, Patch (Robbie Robertson). A semi-love triangle ensues and a sub-plot about third rate gangsters occur in this drama that supposedly started out as a documentary about carnies. It definitely captures that not so innocent vibe well.
Even the most innocent film on this list still has an air of grime to it. On its face, the tale of a talented yet poor magician/mind-reader named Markov the Magnificent teaming up with a smartass talking chimp named Alexander the Great sounds like the apex of family fun. There should be a fun, whimsical thing going on but it feels more than a little scuzzy, however unintentional. That may be because the director, the late Al Adamson, was trying to make his first ever family film after a prolific career of over 30 exploitation and horror flicks with illustrious titles like Satan's Sadists, The Naughty Stewardesses, Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Brain of Blood. In a 2010 interview with The Austin Chronicle, former Alamo Drafthouse programmer/author Zack Carlson once colorfully said the movie, "Just has this pervasive air of stale, alcoholic uncles … You can tell it was made by people who have never spent any time around children." Recently restored on Blu-ray, this is a fun little weirdo curio if you're into cinematic misfires that wind up getting roasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000.