Carnivals have always been a little creepy.
Sure, they’re places to have fun, but they always promise something weird, something grotesque, something to squirm and gawk at as part of the fun.
It’s no surprise, then, that carnivals have inspired a host of excellent horror films.
I’m distinguishing carnivals from circuses, though the two are interrelated. Carnivals are more personal, more interactive, more up-close. Circuses are larger and more centralized.
You’re a spectator at a circus, but you might be a participant at a carnival – either trying your hand at a carnival game, or standing face-to-face with a carnival freak.
Here is my list of classic creepy carnival films. I count 18 films, and most are very good. In this installment, I’ll cover carnival films through the early 1960s. In my next installment, I’ll cover creepy carnival cinema from the mid 1960s into the early 1980s.
How about this: the very first internationally successful horror film is a carnival horror film! A carnival hypnotist named Caligari commands a somnambulist to do his bidding… and his bidding is murder!
The somnambulist appears not only to sleep but to live in a coffin. The film is not horrifying to modern audiences, but the bizarre stylized sets remain off-putting and strange. The stylization makes the whole city seem carnivalesque.
THE UNKNOWN (USA, 1927)
Though Tod Browning’s Freaks is much more famous (see below), The Unknown is a better film: tighter and more focused, with no wasted moments.
Like most carnival horror films, the horror arises mostly from weird and disturbing ideas – not from shocks or gore. Our anti-hero Alonzo, played with relish by the great Lon Chaney, pretends to be armless to impress the woman he loves… but eventually becomes so skilled with his legs and feet that he considers getting his arms amputated on purpose for real!
Many scenes unfold within carnival wagons or tents.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (USA, 1928)
Conrad Veidt, who played the somnambulist in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (see above), here plays the hapless Gwynplaine, a carnival freak whose face was surgically altered during boyhood to exhibit a permanent twisted grin.
It’s a tragic romance, emotionally intense, with 17th-century carnival atmosphere. Get in the mood for melodramatic silent-era acting, and you’ll enjoy it immensely.
FREAKS (USA, 1932)
It’s technically a circus film but it’s all about the sideshow, and a sideshow is basically a carnival.
Writer-director Tod Browning had spent his younger years working in circus sideshows, and he developed sympathy and affinity for the myriad human oddities (“freaks”) he encountered.
The film is clearly sympathetic to the freaks – all the freaks are heroic and the one beautiful “normal” woman is villainous – but it has a horror atmosphere and a high camp horror coda.
Audiences in the 30s were disgusted, and the film was suppressed for an entire generation before it remerged in the 1960s. It’s only about an hour, so it should be high on your creepy carnival film list.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (USA, 1947)
This is Film Noir, but unlike virtually all other Noir films it’s a tiny bit supernatural, as the anti-hero is a tiny bit psychic.
Like other classic Noir protagonists, he’s rather amoral, willing to use and abuse others, willing to tell untruths to make his way in the world. And as in other classic Noir films, the world around the protagonist also seems corrupt – with sham psychics and assorted swindlers using the carnival to milk the gullible public for every cent they can get.
Carnival “geeks” bite the heads off live chickens as our anti-hero watches in morbid fascination.
Quality-wise, this is probably the best film on our list.
GORILLA AT LARGE (USA, 1954)
Here’s the least famous film on our list, yet it features the most famous cast: Raymond Burr, Anne Bancroft, Cameron Mitchell, Lee J. Cobb, and Lee Marvin, all in one film.
A skeevy carnival boasts a killer gorilla named Goliath but also a substitute guy in a gorilla suit.
When carnival workers start showing up dead, whodunit – the real gorilla or the fake one?
A late scene in a mirror maze is good but was probably even better in the film’s original 3D. Well worth the watch.
NIGHT TIDE (USA, 1961)
It’s technically a Santa Monica boardwalk movie, but boardwalks are pretty close to carnivals, right?
Dennis Hopper, in one of his first starring roles, falls in love with a smoldering carnival beauty who might be an evil siren.
Is she really supernatural? Or is the hero just confused by obsession and lust? The minimalist b&w atmosphere predates Carnival of Souls.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (USA, 1962)
You probably know this one already, but how could I exclude it from the list? It’s a strange, hallucinogenic experience, and alongside Night of the Living Dead and Spider Baby it’s one of the top three independent horror flicks of the 60s.
For more on the Saltair resort in all its carnival glory, see the extras on the Rhino DVD.
THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES (USA, 1964)
If you don’t know this film’s full title, go ahead and look it up on the IMDb since it’s reportedly the longest ever title for a feature film (or look at the poster above).
While the title and the movie are filled with gimmicks, the carnival (boardwalk, amusement park) atmosphere is continuous and powerful. Watch as a sideshow astrologer turns unsuspecting victims into “mixed-up zombies.” Will our hero escape?
Three quarters of the movie plays at the boardwalk carnival, and one quarter plays in a little theater where 60s lounge singers croon songs in their entirety. The cheapness and unselfconsciousness of the farrago is part of the fun.