We don’t watch a lot of TV, but when we do, it usually stars a bloodthirsty Jessica Lange. The 4th season of American Horror Story premiers this week, putting us in the mood for some carnival side show prep work. If you, too, are eager for the new season, here are some flicks – some great, some magnificently awful – to help you gear up.
9. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival comes to Greentown, IL, drawing the attention of most of the lonely hearts in town. It is especially appealing to two lads, but Will and Jim quickly learn that Mr. Dark has nefarious schemes in mind. Jason Robards to the rescue! The film is dated in that nostalgic Disney live action way, but there is still something sweetly spooky about it.
8. Passion Plan (2010)
Mickey Rourke falls in love at a side show. That sounds about right. In this enormously flawed yet weirdly watchable mind bender, Bill Murray, Megan Fox and Rhys Ifans help a down-on-his-luck trumpet player find redemption at the carnival.
7. Stitches (2012)
There are a lot of scary clowns in films – the best being It’s Pennywise and Robby’s terrifying toy in Poltergeist. But, not that many can carry an entire film. Stitches can. This Irish import sees a half assed clown accidentally offed at a 6-year-old’s birthday party, only to return to finish his act when the lad turns 16. Dark yet bawdy humor and game performances elevate this one way above teen slasher. Gory, gross, funny and well acted – it brings to mind some of Peter Jackson’s early work. It’s worth a look.
6. Vampire Circus (1972)
Here’s one of Hammer Horror’s early Seventies vampire flicks, replete with oil painted vampires, nubile and naked (sometimes striped) women, costumes, torches, and a nay-saying scientist/doctor. But there is one piece of novelty: these vampires work in a circus. Handsome Emil – kind of a cross between Jim Mrrison and Pauley Shore – comes to town and soon midgets, acrobats, panthers, strongmen (played by David Prouse – that’s right, kids, Darth Vader!), and gypsy women are killing all the children in town. But they don’t know that the hero possesses the power to make a cross glow. Think of how that would have been totally wasted had he been born during the Zombiepocalypse rather than an old timey vampire infestation!
5. The Funhouse (1981)
Double dating teens hit the carnival and decide to spend the night inside the park’s funhouse. What could go wrong? Well, as would become the norm in every carnival-themed horror film to come, the ride is the secret hideaway of a carny’s deformed and bloodthirsty offspring. Director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) develops a genre-appropriate seediness among the carnies, as well as an unwholesome atmosphere. This one’s no masterpiece, but it is a tidy, garish, claustrophobic and unsettling piece of indie filmmaking.
4. Nightmare Alley (1947)
Tyrone Power plays a carnival barker and conman trying to get mystic Madam Zeena’s secret clairvoyance trick. Once he does, he hits the bricks with his new love interest and swindles gullible richies, but ruin is never far away for ol’Tyrone, and when you start off a carny, down is the wrong direction to go. A lot of real carny folks and a surprisingly dark storyline make this a standout era flick.
3. The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta) (2010)
Who’s in the mood for something weird? Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango) returns to form with The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain. Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty. The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.
2. La Strada (1954)
Fellini’s beautiful tragedy of naïve Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and the brutish strongman (Anthony Quinn) who purchases her casts the life of the traveling performer with surreal poetry. Beautiful, melancholy, sometimes absurd and often punishing, it’s perhaps the auteur’s saddest, dreamiest effort.
1. Freaks (1932)
Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all. This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film? Well, that’s not for me to say. I suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s me. What I can tell you for sure is that the film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.