When a young Ray Bradbury visited a carnival, it changed his life. At 12 years old he met a carnival magician named Mr. Electro who told Bradbury of eternal life and inspired him to write the fantasy fiction that would make him a household name. When I first visited a carnival, a laughing policeman in a booth scared me, a dog stole my sausage roll and my first taste of candy floss made me feel like vomiting. But still, at least Bradbury had some luck and his luck would lead to him writing Something Wicked This Way Comes, possibly the definitive creepy carnival work, at least in print anyway, in cinema there are a lot of rivals and in this piece I’m going to take a look at some of them.
Despite the fact that it has been used as a setting quite often, I think the carnival is still oddly underused in horror cinema. There’s a lot of potential to that location that doesn’t get explored as often as it should. Few of them manage to capture the atmosphere of the fair, that place where illusion and outright lies meet reality in a tacky, gaudy mixture. The ones that are successful rank among the greatest horror films of all time.
It’s been claimed that horror is inherently a conservative genre, because it teaches you to fear the other. I tend to disagree, I think it cultivates a fascination with the other. In horror the villains are often the most interesting characters. And often films will also teach you that the outsider is misunderstood, or has only become evil through neglect or circumstance. One of horror’s (and all weird fiction, be it fantasy, sci-fi, etc) great strengths is that it can use fantastical methods of telling very human stories and addressing individual concerns. So I think the idea of horror being solely conservative is a very narrow reading of the genre and I think horror’s use of carnivals and fairgrounds as settings are a perfect way to illustrate that point.
I think the appeal of the carnival and the appeal of horror are somewhat similar. They both need to shock audiences, to capture some immediate, in the moment, scare or they’ll fail. Horror master William Castle even called his book ‘Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America’. And indeed there was the habit in the early days of cinema of touring controversial films and treating them like the old carny acts of old, with the same kind of barker fronting the shows and bringing in passing trade.
Carnivals are interesting in horror because on the one hand, the freak show allows for voyeurism – the horror chained. You could even include certain scenes in King Kong in this category. But the freak show also forces the normal deep into the territory of the unknown, you’re on their home-ground. And if they get loose, or you get lost in there, then it’s not going to be pleasant. So there is that element of the fear of the unknown, but the curiosity is also there, as well as a lot of sympathy. The first film I’m going to look at it is without a doubt the king of carnival horror, and it’s also the film with the greatest amount of sympathy and respect for the inhabitants of the freak show.
Tod Browning’s Freaks was near mythical to me for the longest time, largely because of its unavailability. I’m not talking about the lengthy ban, I wasn’t even alive during that time period where it was decided Freaks was unfit to be seen by the British public, I mean the simple fact that it was just unavailable. It’s certainly a film I remember seeing stills of and reading about long before I got to see it. I may be harking back to earlier columns here, but I think this again is where anyone who has been raised in an internet era misses out. You want to see Freaks today, there are always ways to see it. I wanted to see Freaks, I had to wait and hope for a television screening or a video release. It was a television screening (or at least a Sky screening) that finally gave me the opportunity to see the film, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Tod Browning’s finest hour (and a bit) is the tale of a group of circus performers looking to avenge one of their own. Hans, a midget, falls in love with Cleopatra, the trapeze artist. Cleopatra is beautiful on the outside but a vile creature inside. She seduces and marries him once she learns he’s come into an inheritance. The other circus ‘freaks’ try their best to accept her, even throwing a wedding dinner where they toast her as ‘one of us’, but she quickly reveals how much they disgust her. Despite the way she mocks and humiliates the freaks, Hans stays with her, leaving Cleopatra and her secret lover, the circus strongman Hercules, free to carry out their murderous plot. When the freaks discover her attempting to poison Hans, they take a fitting revenge on her.
You can’t call it a perfect film. As fascinating as the circus sideshow actors are as performers, they weren’t professional actors, meaning the film lacks a great central performance to anchor it. Certainly there’s no performance as immediate and as overpowering as the ones Chaney brought to his work with Browning. But it has a surreal, otherworldly feel, something achieved not through the casting of deformed actors, but through the atmosphere Browning brings to the family. He brings a true gothic feeling to the film and at times, especially that final nighttime chase in the rain, it has the atmosphere of a fever dream.
Browning used real circus freaks as his stars, causing many to call this film exploitation. But the truth is that they are the heroes of the film, sympathetic and human. Those who class this as exploitation seem to regard these people only as freaks, Browning saw them differently. Browning views the freaks as one big family, and like any family they get upset when someone hurts one of their own. It’s true that he makes use of their appearance to add to the nightmarish scenes where they pursue Cleopatra through the rain, but we’re on their side all the way, she deserves whatever happens to her. Freaks is actually a film that causes us to question what really is horrific. Is horror in the people who have their bodies twisted by birth defects or is it in the hearts of even the most ‘normal’ ones among us?
A decade later, an actor desperate to rid himself of his valiant hero image gave us another of the great carny films – Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley. It’s a startlingly odd film. Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, a sleazy sideshow barker for a fake psychic, Zeena (Joan Blondell), in a run-down travelling carnival. Stanton starts an affair with Zeena and accidentally murders her husband Pete before stealing her secrets and trying to make his name in nightclubs. Soon he’s acting as a spiritualist to the wealthy but finds himself on the way down to a fate almost as shocking as Cleopatra’s. Of course it’s more film noir than horror, but I always found noir to be a genre on the verge of falling into horror (more than once it actually does) and if ever there was an argument for the potential of crossing the genres it’s Nightmare Alley. This was the finest performance of Power’s career. He’s playing a character who is as exploitative, greedy and sleazy as his surroundings, and he absolutely relishes it. Power was the one in charge, even so far as hiring the director, and it shows on screen. Even though this feels indebted to Browning, while Freaks presents the carnies as a family, Nightmare Alley sets out to shatter that illusion. It tries to puncture both the con-artists who work the fairgrounds and the attitudes of the naive who find themselves sucked in by it. But it doesn’t even make it as clear-cut as drawing straight lines between sides, even Carlisle has a desire to believe in the fakery. What it does so well is capture the atmosphere of a dingy carnival, a place where the geek is considered the lowest of the low and discussed in a mixture of awed whispers and outright contempt. It’s cynical, bleak and brilliant.
Let’s make another jump of 15 years now, to a low-budget masterpiece, but one that makes very different use of the carnival – Herk Hervey’s Carnival of Souls. Souls is an expressionist little ghost story that owes much to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Playing out like the moodiest dream imaginable, this ultra low-budget offering ranks among the greatest horror films ever made. Mary (Candace Hilligoss) narrowly escapes death when her car goes off a bridge while drag racing. She is the sole survivor of the accident, but finds herself haunted by the ghostly figure of a silent, pale man. Most of the film is actually irrelevant when it comes to this thread, but Candace Hilligoss’s haunting dreams of an abandoned carnival populated by dead souls deserves examination. The deserted pavilion that houses the carnival was actually the inspiration for making the film in the first place, Hervey envisioned using that location to create a horror film that would be reminiscent of the works of Bergman or Cocteau. Snobs would laugh at that, no doubt, but the surreal scenes of the undead rising from a lake or dancing together in the carnival can stand alongside anything in Hour of the Wolf or Blood of a Poet. The Carnival here is both terrifying and enticing. Even if the link to carnivals as I’ve been talking about them is fleeting, it’s one of the films that best captures that other-worldly potential of the location.
When Hammer took on the circus, they put their own unique stamp on it by mixing it into their vampire legacy. The result was Vampire Circus, one of the most unique and overlooked of all the Hammer films. A small village is being troubled by a vampire, Count Mitterhouse. Mitterhouse had already made the schoolteacher’s wife, Anna, into his mistress and together they’ve been abducting and murdering village children. The villagers rebel, kill the count and destroy the castle. With his dying breath, Mitterhouse vows revenge on the villagers. Roll opening credits. 15 years later, the villagers are dropping dead of a strange illness that leaves the corpses with black sores. Quarantine is imposed on the town with soldiers lining the outskirts of the town, shooting all who try to pass. A local, Dr. Kersch (Richard Owens) agrees to try and slip through the cordon to get medicine from the city. Kersch moved to Stettel after the death of the vampire, so doesn’t believe in the villagers’ fears of a supernatural curse. But despite the quarantine, a travelling carnival – The Circus of Nights, mysteriously arrives in town. Led by a mysterious gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the circus consists of vampires and soon the village children start to disappear again. The scenes of the vampiric circus are among the most memorable in Hammer history and this is one of those quirky, intriguing horrors that all too often slip through the gaps.
British horror also gave us a really loose remake of both Freaks and The Island of Dr. Moreau in The Mutations. Donald Pleasence stars as Professor Nolter, your typical mad scientist. He’s been conducting a series of bizarre experiments where he crosses humans with plants and animals. For fun, I guess. He hires Lynch (Tom Baker), the deformed man who runs a nearby freakshow. Nolter promises to cure Lynch’s disfigured face as long as Lynch supplies humans for the experiments. When the experiments fail, Lynch puts them on display in his freak show. Wouldn’t it be easier just to kill them? So there’s no risk of anyone ever accidentally finding them? The freak show is made up of real freaks (much like freaks itself), including a human pin-cushion and a pretzel boy among others. It’s not a patch on the Browning film, of course, but it’s atmospheric and fun.
One of the weirdest films to take the carnival as a setting is the little known Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. Filmed in an actual theme park in Philadelphia, the story follows Vena (Janine Carazo) and her parents (Elizabeth Henn and Paul Hostetler), who arrive at the carnival, bringing with them a shooting game. They set up stall while Vena waits for her boyfriend to arrive. The carnival is decrepit and run down, overseen by Mr. Blood for the mysterious owner, Mr. Malatesta. Blood is a kind of vampire, Malatesta is even more powerful than that. Vena gets friendly with the guy who runs the Tunnel of Love, but what she doesn’t realise is that strange cannibals/zombies live in the bowels of the Tunnel. Also living in the carnival is a cross-dressing clairvoyant and Bobo the Dwarf, who talks in riddles and rhymes and is played by Herve Villechaize. There’s no denying that many will be put off by the film’s low-budget and oddball air, but it’s surreal, eerie and downright chilling at times. It reminds me of the kind of American indie horror film-making that led to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Messiah of Evil. It’s not a film for everyone, but the open-minded and adventurous viewer will find so many pleasures here.
It’s a long-held belief that Tobe Hooper’s only film of any worth after Texas Chainsaw was Salem’s Lot. I disagree. Death Trap is incredibly entertaining and his fairground horror, The Funhouse, is a rather wonderful, seedy and weird little film. We open with a needlessly exploitative (but fun anyway) scene of Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) showering in her family house. We see someone enter the house, pick up a knife and put on a mask, before following her into the bathroom. So far, so Halloween. But this time it’s a prank being pulled by Amy’s little brother. Amy is going to a carnival with her boyfriend, her parents don’t approve because the last time the carnival is in town two girls died, so she lies. Of course, while there, they witness a carnival freak murder someone, they get locked in, and freak and his father are soon on their trail. The plot is perfunctory, it’s the atmosphere that makes it special. Yes, there’s cliches, inbred creatures, creepy sideshow barkers, strippers, fortune tellers. But Hooper knows how to make grotesques work. It’s one of the best films to capture the carnival as a seedy netherworld.
By the time Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was finally filmed, it had passed through many hands and finally ended up as a Disney property. You’d expect them to neuter the piece, and in a way they do. But it also makes the film feel oddly subversive. All that darkness shouldn’t be associated with Disney. Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are two young boys, best friends, in a small American town. Overnight, a mysterious travelling carnival blows into town, led by the sinister ringmaster, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), and starts granting the wishes and secret desires of the townsfolk. But, as always, their desires come with a price. It’s not as good as the book, nowhere near. But it does have a lot of things in its favour. It’s quite insightful when it comes to projecting the dread of ageing in the characters. Both of losing our own childhoods, reaching the ends of our lives, and of seeing our parents age. There’s also a nice atmosphere and some exceptional performances, Jason Robards and Pam Grier are both brilliant, but the film is stolen by the remarkable Jonathan Pryce’s unsettling performance as Mr. Dark.
The idea of the carnival as a setting for horror didn’t die off after the definitive novel was adapted, but the great works certainly have gone into decline. One of the best modern day uses of the setting’s potential for horror came through The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, a character that led us into a depraved world of kidnapped housewives and humans being turned into animals. Carnivale also used the idea of the travelling carnival, although it was never as spooky or as unsettling as it could have been, choosing instead to focus more on the bigger battle of good and evil. House of 1000 Corpses made a good stab at capturing the feel of the demented thrill-ride, Killer Klowns from Outer Space made great comedic use of the material and Tim Curry gave us one of the most terrifying clowns of all time in Stephen King’s It, but there’s no classics on the level of Freaks or Nightmare Alley being made. There’s still the potential for greatness, if the adaptation of Geek Love ever gets off the ground, it seems like can’t miss material, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus came as close to greatness as any film could considering the circumstances behind its making. And the feel of the carnival isn’t dead, the spirit of it spreads into many other horror films, and cinema in general. What else is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre if it’s not a demented freak show? Isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark just a cinematic roller-coaster? But the setting is missed. As it is in real life. Maybe it’s the changing times that make it less viable to use it as a location for horror, a fairground just doesn’t hold the same thrill as it used to. Maybe it’s because of growing up and the promises of the darker aspects disappearing. Who really cares about a big wheel if there’s not the possibility of it stealing your life force? Where are the freak shows of old? Ok, of course freak shows aren’t acceptable now and I’m not arguing otherwise. I’m talking about the illusions of youth vs the reality. Grow up reading certain books or watching certain films and it gives you expectations of a certain mystery to life. The trouble is that mystery often comes from work based on certain stereotypes, and that’s something that also has to be understood and accepted, those stereotypes are no longer acceptable and I doubt you’d find many people who’d argue that they should be. But I can’t help but miss everything else that came with them, the idea that there was both a darker and more mysterious side of life and that they could be accessed by doing something as simple as visiting a travelling show.