Top 10 Horror Movie Carnivals!

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

F*ck yes guys and ghouls, HELL FEST is officially open for perusal. Not sure about y’all, but slasher flicks are still among my favorite subgenre of horror, followed closely by quality genre joints that are take place in creepy carnival/circus setting. Thankfully, both come to a head in HELL FEST, courtesy of The Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5 director Gregory Plotkin. I’m all in!

But before we report back with how HELL FEST fares, we thought it the perfect opportunity to revisit some of the creepiest killer carnivals, most sinister circuses and f*cked up freak-shows to ever grace the big screen. With a 90 year gap between top and bottom spots, join us to discover our Top 10 Favorite Horror Movie Carnivals below!

10. THE LAST CIRCUS (2010)

That’s right b*tches, we’re coming out guns-a-blazin’! Not only that, but we begin with the most recent release of our entire list. Make of that what you will, but when all was tallied, we couldn’t omit Alex de la Iglesia’s deliciously quenching-curio of a strange brew served up in THE LAST CIRCUS. What a weird ass watch! With equal parts horror, humor outright drama and rivaling romance, the story follows the difficult decision of acrobat Natalia, who must chose the love of the Happy Clown Sergio or Sad Clown Javier amid the sinister swirl of a surreal circus setting. A highly bizarre flick that defies logic, i.e., exactly what you’d hope for in a crazy carnival ride!


Look at these riotous, ribald redneck rubes! Indeed, just below the frame is a cropped image for the southern flag for the confederacy (of dunces), and this Herschell Gordon Lewis classic, made in the year of American Civil Rights mind you, can be seen as a direct rebuke of the violent injustice incurred in the area and just how backward thinking its inhabitants were at the time. As a result, our carnival in TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! is more of a jubilant jamboree of f*cked festivities and torturous games that the backwoods dwellers throw in honor of six Yankees encroaching their land on the centennial of the Civil War.


Ah, always good to celebrate a classic Hammer horror title. And given today’s topic, we do so via the 1972 Robert Young film VAMPIRE CIRCUS, a fun and properly f*cked up film about a 19th century traveling circus that taunts, torments and terrorizes a quarantined European town in the face of a widespread plague. As you can see above, one of the leopard attractions in the circus turns into a vampiric menace that begins running roughshod over the entire circus. Meanwhile, a host of children are being abducted by the rest of the bloodsucking troupe en route to becoming one of the most entertaining horror movie mash-ups Hammer ever attempted.


Every time the phrase KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE comes up, all I can think of is the metal-shredding, face-melting theme song by The Dickies. Shite’s fire! Speaking of fire, isn’t it a fiery asteroid that brings the extraterrestrial KILLER KLOWNS to arrive on Earth in the first place? Whatever the case, the impossibly sized and scaled circus-tent that serves as the alien mother-ship serves as a hunting ground and storage space for human cocoons to let fresh blood from. Most of the third act takes place inside the tent, which not only has endless doorways and disorienting architecture, but also lowers the massive King-Klown into its arena for our heroes to confront.

6. FREAKS (1932)

Anyone else have a sneaking suspicion a movie like FREAKS could never be made today? Indeed, Tod Browning’s so-called novelty of casting his movie with real-life “freaks” seems like it could have only be made in 1932, which, in a way, preserves the film in a kind of fossilized time-capsule we simply don’t experience much nowadays. Is it exploitation or is it opportunity? Well, it’s probably a nuanced mixture of the two, and because the film still features a handful of sequences that induce genuine chills, the movie overall deserves more than to be recalled as a mere gimmick. The scene where the dude is crawling under the car with a knife in his teeth is still one of the most frightening images one can recall!


To see Jodorowski’s SANTA SANGRE once is to be forever scarred! Indeed, the mad Chilean auteur has made a cult-film living by invariably mind-raping his subjectively willing audience, and in SANTA SANGRE – about a ex-circus performer who escapes a mental asylum and reunites with her armless mother in a murderous ploy to win back her trust – yeah, he makes EL TOPO and HOLY MOUNTAIN seem coherent. This is a wildly offensive, highly perverted, abjectly foul and totally unique way of spending time with killer-carnies. No bullshite, Jodorowski is the most interesting man in the world…as SANTA SANGRE proves, his nightmares are afraid of him!


How’s this for a f*cked-up formula: a PG Disney movie directed by the great Jack Clayton (THE INNOCENTS) from script from the even greater Ray Bradbury (adapted from his own novel). Yup, such is the pedigree behind the 1983 carnie-curio SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, a movie that is undeniably powerful in its depiction of the Dark Pandemonium Carnival and how it suddenly came to town to tempt its assorted patrons. Granted, the movie hews more to the fantastic realm than the horrific one, but the level of writing, directing, and acting (especially Jason Robards) is so tremendous that it defies category and commands the attention of movie-lovers of all stripe.   

3. THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

Personally speaking, Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE is and will always be my favorite horror movie carnival ride. Of course, this isn’t an actual carnival per se, but a horror themed amusement park (much like HELL FEST) that features a whole cavalcade of freakish curios and mysteriously macabre oddities. It’s a plot that would be perfectly unsettling on its face, but when you add the fact that a hideously deformed sideshow freak begins systematically stalking a spate of thrill-seeking teenagers, the terror quotient is upped twofold. Honestly though, it’s the colorful, Bava-esque ambience and unnerving atmosphere that demands THE FUNHOUSE be an annual destination!


Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS is not only a morbidly surreal depiction of a woman in the throes of a purgatorial frenzy, it happens to be one of the best less-is-more low-budget black and white horror flicks to ever come about. Far less reliant on aging special FX, the story about a church organist who plummets off a bridge before returning to face her demons is made with good old fashion acting and atmospheric dread. The woman is summoned by a phantom-like figure to an abandoned carnival pavilion, where she grapples with dreamlike psychological torment amid a parade of eternally ferried souls!       


1920? Holy Hell! No question, when you’re that old, that OG, that instrumental in creating the very genre we’re here feting today, yup, you bet your asses the gold medal is awarded to the nearly 100 year old masterwork of Gothic German expressionism in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. As for the plot, a hypnotist invites the masses to a public exhibit where he’s to brainwash a sleepwalker into committing murder. I recall seeing this joint in film class back in the day and being totally disoriented by the off-kilter camerawork, chiaroscuro lighting and menacing atmosphere. In even in silence, the good Dr. speaks volumes!

Tags: Hollywood

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