It’s the Freakiest Show

A brief history of carny films from ‘Nightmare Alley’ to ‘Nightmare Alley’

Theater of the macabre director Guilermo Del Toro’s remake of the intentionally disturbing 1947 sideshow carnival noir cult classic Nightmare Alley hits theaters December 17th. That’s some Christmas cheer counter-programming!

This tale of geeks–not the kind you find these days at an Apple Genius Bar, but the original tear-the-heads-off-small animals-with-their teeth-freak-show variety–asks the question “How does a guy get so low?” then shows you. Former “Sexiest Man of the Year” Bradley Cooper as the low level carny who transforms into the mind reading, fate tempting, unscrupulous stage magician “The Great Stanton” is in for a rough ride.

In anticipation of Del Toro’s reworking of this classic we take a look at the original  Nightmare Alley and a handful of other notable films and streaming series exploring life amidst the drifters, grifters and carnies who make these intriguingly seamy itinerant entertainments possible.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Where carnival horror films began.

Just over a hundred years old the endlessly influential chiaroscuro lit tale of the vengeful Dr. Caligari and his carnival spectacle, proto-emo and Transformer era Lou Reed/Edward Scissorhands inspiration “Cesare the Somnambulist” still packs quite the visual and visceral punch.

Back in 1920 North American audiences had never seen anything quite like this story of a twisted hypnotist and the tortured creature that did his bidding. That was by intent. Financially strapped German producers targeting the post World War I American film market could not compete with their US competitors on budget so they focused instead on novelty, both in look and theme. A Grimm dream-like anxiety-ridden fable of magic, murder and mayhem en-robed in the discordant, claustrophobic, and, importantly, inexpensive aesthetic of then all-the-rage German Expressionism fit the bill nicely.

So it was that a handful of stage set designers and disaffected Weimar Republic WWI veterans had the opportunity to make one of the most influential films of the century. Among many others, Tim Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, the makers of Universal’s classic 1930s monster movies, and lovers of film noir are forever grateful.

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Hollywood film idol Tyrone Power was at the peak of his aesthetic and audience pulling powers, when looking to test his acting chops, and against the best judgment of the studio heads, he made this movie happen.

The film based on William Lindsay Gresham’s grim 1946 novel of the same name opens with ambitious young carny Stanton Carlisle observing one of his carnival’s major draws and staple of mid century midways–“the geek”. It transfixes him. The camera pans almost lovingly over the myriad wide-eyed yokels, from children to elderly, pressed in against the filthy cage/pit that houses the “half-man half-beast”. Mouths agape, they relish every moment of its snakehead-biting, reptilian blood-swilling, hygiene-absent ritual of self abasement. An unpleasant bit of Americana, the kind you don’t see in a Norman Rockwell painting.

“How does a guy get so low?”

As befits a 1940s studio system film there are multiple major roles for women. A gamely, blowzy Joan Blondell plays Zeena, the Tarot card reading oracle with more than a little man trouble. In the ingenue role Coleen Gray playing Power’s naive young love interest Molly, stage name Electra, literally glows. She does a Tesla Coil act wherein thousands of volts very visibly pass through her body. Like Power, Gray exudes the glamor of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Carnies never looked so good. Finally, there’s Helen Walker as the not too subtly named Lilith, the cold, insectile psychologist Stan fatefully turns to for help with his anxiety induced insomnia.

The haunting film was a financial flop. One of the darkest films ever produced by the studio system it is now a cult favorite. No surprise it drew Del Toro’s interest.

Carny (1980)

Director Robert Kaylor’s Carny is a gritty examination of the day-to-day life of a modern mid-size traveling carnival long past its best-before date struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.

Gary Busey plays the geek in this particular road show . “The Mighty Bozo” is a hostile, audience-abusing, garishly face painted–think Insane Clown Posse early inspiration–dunk tank clown. Ensconced in his blinking multicolored cage just above the midway crowds, Bozo gleefully goads the rubes into paying for the grimy baseballs with which they hope to silence him. Far from having fallen involuntarily into this life “Frankie”, Bozo’s out-of-makeup name, relishes and embraces it in all its willful abnegation of conventional aspiration glory. The film never explains why.

Jodie Foster as Donna, a luminous young runaway who’s too smart for her environment, aims low, and succeeds is terrific and never looked better. But it might be carnival manager/fixer Robbie Robertson as “Patch”, a contemptuous slow-boil cool proto-hipster Brooklyn guy, pork-pie hat and all,  who steals the show. In this role, Roberston reminds one of Robert Downey Jr.. He’s one chill ex-con carny.

In the end, Kaylor’s quasi- documentary is one of those movies that doesn’t have much of a point other than exposing the viewer to other worlds and other lives. Fair enough. Frankie, Patch, Donna and the “Great American Carnival” are more than worth spending a few hours with.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

While, Nightmare Alley and Carny both look upon carnival life under a somewhat sympathetic lens, Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a rare foray into horror for the Mouse, adopts the more conventional Dr. Caligari  perspective. In this film, traveling carnivals and those that work for them are alien and vaguely menacing. Sometimes not so vaguely.

Both Something Wicked’s original story and screenplay are products of the ample imagination of Midwest surrealist Ray Bradbury, who first drafted this fantastic morality tale in 1958. A strange carnival appears in a bucolic Illinois town pitting the not-so-good but trying simple town folk and their struggles with their own longings against something old and evil proffering answers to all their prayers. Enter Dr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival and its mysterious, wish-granting, roped-off, “under repair” carousel.

Jason Robards as Charles Halloway, the town librarian father of one of the at-risk boys, transcends the ordinary decent man as latent hero cliche. Robards, an aging man with a weak heart, presents a credible challenge to Dr. Dark, the satanic carnival manager who threatens to bring the whole town under his thrall. A young, well-cast Jonathan Pryce plays the top-hat bedecked “Doctor” sporting eerie tattoos that writhe under his skin on command.

Something Wicked, excellent at times, is ultimately and not surprisingly uneven. Disney clearly wasn’t quite ready to go where it needed to go to make what still turned out to be a well crafted chill inducing movie the classic it could have been. One wonders what director Sam Peckinpah, who at one point in the film’s tortured multi-decade development cycle was attached to the project, could have done with the material. A little “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” might have been just what this project needed.

American Horror Story: Freak Show (2015)

No examination of films related to carnivals would be complete without mention of FX’s ground breaking American Horror anthology’s year 4 “Freak Show.” Clearly, and admittedly inspired by cult favorites Freaks (1932) and to a lesser extent the ethereal Carnival of Souls (1962), the series both benefits and suffers from its longer format and anything-goes production era.

Freak Show’s candy colored enameled aesthetic creates a nice tension with the grotesquery and terror it so enthusiastically traffics in. The large leering Devil’s head through whose gaping mouth ticket buyers enter the freak show, which borrows from late 19th century carnival design, has become iconic.

Among the series necessarily large cast of side show performers Jessica Lange as the freak show’s troubled manager Madame Elsa, Sarah Paulson as the plucky conjoined twins Dot and Belle and Evan Peters as the good hearted Jimmy, the “Lobster Boy” stand out. So too do villains John Carroll Lynch as the inevitably murderous Twisty the Clown and Finn Wittrock as scion of the local gentry, straw boater-wearing psychopath turned freak show fan boy, Dandy Mott.

This gore-soaked soap opera is definitely not for weak stomachs or the faint of heart. At points it can seem simultaneously overwhelming and having over stayed its welcome. None of this, however, takes away from the early pleasures or later high points of the series. This production, after all, features a set piece of Jessica Lange nailing David Bowie’s Life on Mars: “It’s the freakiest show” and an early forerunner of Instagram; the Museum of Morbid Curiosities.


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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

6 thoughts on “It’s the Freakiest Show

  • December 16, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    To survey this genre of film without including a segment on Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks is a bit like publishing a reference work on investment banking with no mention of Goldman Sachs.

    • December 16, 2021 at 2:01 pm

      Michael, Fair comment. No question the 1932 version of Freaks is iconic. It was a tough call. That’s why I did mention Freaks in the American Horror Story segment and gave it credit as the primary influence in that work. In the end it came down to space considerations and I leaned towards American Horror Season 4 because I wanted to include some more modern renderings of the themes and narratives many of which the two works shared.

      • December 16, 2021 at 4:12 pm

        Well that is a good call, and let me thank you for a very well-written and engaging piece. I especially like that you made Ray Bradbury part of the discussion. He is one of my heroes.

  • December 17, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    Fascinating read! Thanks for making movies I didn’t think I had any interest in seeing, interesting. Such descriptive writing I felt like I was right there and getting totally drawn in.
    The insight and history you weave throughout the piece makes these movies far more compelling. I find the same knowledgeable historical insights in your previous writings also. Great work!
    A fan.

    • December 17, 2021 at 7:49 pm

      It is a great read!

  • December 20, 2021 at 8:37 pm

    It’s clear that Porteous has a passion for the subject, but he’s also having so much fun writing it — it’s playful in a very literary way. That’s rare these days. I’m with Roberta (above) — I’m not that interested in freaky movies, but reading this made me want to watch some. Nice.


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