Last installment, I listed nine horror or exploitation pictures from cinema’s beginnings up through the mid 1960s that prominently feature menacing carnival acts, workers, or freaks.
Now I’ve got nine more, dating from the late 1960s into the early 1980s where my territory ends.
As with the films listed in the previous installment, virtually all of these films are good.
Filmmakers seem to get inspired by carnivalesque spectacle, showmanship, and thrills.
It’s mostly an exploitation film (and a fairly mild one from the co-creator of Blood Feast), but it can’t help show its love for carnivals – the rides, the games, the food, the barkers, and of course the sideshows and freaks. Several scenes have no dialogue; it’s just straight carnival footage with 60s tunes playing overhead.
To gain money and power, our anti-heroine shamelessly manipulates the men around her at the carnival, but what if her plans backfire? The conclusion is an homage to Freaks. Remember, there are two kinds of freaks: “those created by God… and those made by Man.”
TORTURE GARDEN (England, 1967)
Amicus Productions made a dozen horror anthology films in the late 60s and early 70s. The fearless Torture Garden might be their best.
Five carnival visitors pay an extra fee to Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith) at a carnival sideshow to see their own futures. Each future (each story) is very strange. Scenes inside the carnival tent provide the frame tale. Are these viewable futures mere carnival hypnotism? Or is Dr. Diablo really privy to our fates?
I generally dislike anthology films, but Torture Garden is one of the few that I love. Actually, how can anyone not love a film featuring Jack Palance and Peter Cushing attacking each other after arguing about Edgar Allan Poe?
CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (USA, 1970)
While other carnival movies are set in California (like Incredibly Strange Creatures or She Freak), Carnival of Blood sets itself in the most famous carnival on the East Coast: the Coney Island boardwalk.
And better yet, it’s the Coney Island boardwalk in 1970, a decade past its prime but two decades before the last vestiges of old-time freakishness were cleaned away in the 1990s.
Someone is murdering people at the boardwalk, but who? The film itself is awful – offering occasional gore but drowning itself in endless meandering conversations. Still, several colorful characters are sure to stick with you, including Drunken Sailor, Bespectacled Termagant, Gypsy Psychic, and Teddy Bear Dart Guy.
Burt Young, who plays the wonderful scarred retarded hunchback Gimpy, later played Paulie in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (England, 1972)
It says “circus” but the travelling acts really constitute a carnival, complete with fortune tellers and a hall of mirrors.
A cursed village is pleased to get a visit from the carnival… but will the performers help them or destroy them? The famous Hammer Studios was in decline when it made the film, and the studio was adding exploitative nudity to its new releases in an effort to save itself.
The studio finally closed in the late 70s, but Vampire Circus is one of its more memorable pandering productions, if only because one of the circus performers is a nude dancer in tiger-stripe body paint (!). The Victorian atmosphere (always Hammer’s greatest strength) is strong.
MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (USA, 1973)
Unknown for decades but slowly emerging from obscurity is this very fun exploitation flick featuring Herve Villechaize in a small but memorable role as “Bobo” the evil dwarf.
Actually everyone is evil at this dilapidated carnival amusement park where unsuspecting visitors are dragged into hidden underground caves and eaten by cannibals.
So it’s a cannibal carnival. It’s got good low-budget gore and some strong psychedelic carnival atmosphere.
THE FREAKMAKER (England, 1974, a.k.a. “The Mutations”)
With Donald Pleasence playing a mad scientist intent on turning gullible college students into plant-human hybrids, and with Tom Baker in “Elephant Man” makeup playing Pleasence’s trusty assistant/thug, it’s a fair bet that The Freakmaker is pretty intense.
Key scenes unfold in a university or an urban park, but the traveling carnival and sideshow give us the (sympathetic) freaks who just might have to save the day.
Several real-life human oddities appear in the film, including Alligator Girl, Pretzel Boy, and Popeye – who can pop his eyes halfway out of his head. Be ready for some weird nudity and gore too.
THE FUNHOUSE (USA, 1981)
I think this one is overrated, maybe because I expected more from Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, but I love how it lets us behind the scenes more than most other carnival movies.
We creep past the mechanisms inside the rides, we lurk backstage in tents and trailers. Several of the workers – especially the guy who never removes his Frankenstein mask – harbor deadly secrets. Can any of our oversexed teens escape alive?
DEATH SCREAMS (USA, 1982)
A carnival figures into the first third of this little-known low-budget slasher, but it probably should have been the setting for the whole thing. It’s entertaining to see the teens (familiar slasher movie types) in their 80s outfits joking around, chomping carnival food, and hitting some games and rides.
The movie as a whole is confusing and poor, and the best slasher stuff (killings) happens toward the end, but carnival fans should at least try the first 30-40 minutes. It’s North Carolina for a change.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (USA, 1983)
I usually stop at 1982, but 1983’s Something Wicked might have the best creepy carnival of them all.
It’s only a little weird when the mysterious traveling carnival first arrives in the small Midwestern town. Then it gets a little more weird, and a little more, and even more as townspeople are tempted to sacrifice their principles to slake their temporal desires.
Eventually, the entire town seems imperiled by the stone-faced carnival players and their suavely evil master, Mr. Dark. Two young boys (and eventually one boy’s father) recognize the danger. But is it too late?