October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best carnival-set horror movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Ah, the carnival. The glorious home to one-of-a-kind world-class cuisines like cotton candy, funnel cakes, caramel apples, and deep-fried candy bars. It’s a place where you can ride down a colossal slide on a canvas sack or experience the thrill of something called the Zipper, just mere hours after it was hastily assembled by a man named Cooder sporting a wicked mullet. If you’re particularly skilled or just a rube, you can try your hand at winning a pet goldfish or giant stuffed animals by shooting a regulation-sized basketball through a non-regulation-sized hoop or landing a couple of plastic rings on Coke bottles. After you’re properly nourished and have enjoyed all the fun rides and games offered, you can wind down by meeting the alligator man and taking a picture in Bonnie and Clyde’s death car.
Unfortunately, not all carnivals, circuses, and county fairs are fun and games. Sometimes the bright lights and enchanting smells are merely masquerading as fun while being home to the stuff of nightmares. Fortunately, those nightmares have been captured on film throughout the years. And luckily for you, Brad Gullickson, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, and myself watched through everyone of those nightmares before coming up with this top ten list of the best carnival horror.
10. Final Destination 3 (2006)
Any carnival worth its salt should already feel like a little bit of a death trap. It’s crowded and hectic, with screaming being a natural part of the environment. The rides always look a touch too rickety, as if the years of use have surely worn down some nut or bolt or load bearing beam. This is exactly what — hot take alert — the best Final Destination movie perfectly capitalizes on. Before Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Wendy even sets foot on the cursed carnival ride, we can tell that things aren’t going to go well. Add in some ominously demonic iconography and you’ve got yourself the perfect setting for a gruesome premonition. Hell, even without the gift of foresight, we can tell this carnival wasn’t a good idea. (Anna Swanson)
9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986)
Perhaps no franchise represents carnival horror more than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The cannibalistic Sawyer family, led by the chainsaw-wielding, child-like Leatherface, feels like the exact sort of thing you’d see as a sideshow attraction located off a desolate desert highway. And no film exemplifies this more than Tobe Hooper‘s hilarious sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. Dennis Hopper stars as Lefty Enright, a former Texas Ranger, and uncle to Sally and Franklin from the first film. Lefty has spent the last decade investigating chainsaw-related murders across Texas, obsessed with finding the Sawyer Family. A tip from a local radio DJ (Caroline Williams) is the breakthrough he’s been waiting for, leading to a chainsaw-on-chainsaw showdown. The film concludes with an epic battle at the Sawyer family home, an abandoned carnival covered with bones sculptures, lights, and former carnival attractions. (Chris Coffel)
8. Santa Sangre (1989)
You put Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento in the same room together and they’re likely to churn out something utterly bizarre. Such was the case in 1989 when the trio put their collective talents together and unleashed Santa Sangre on an innocent world. The film is the story of a former child magician that grew up as part of a circus family. Years later suffering from childhood trauma and locked away in a mental hospital, he escapes rejoining his mother who is now the leader of a brutal cult. It’s a dizzying tale of carnival horror that sends the viewer on a spectacular trip through the wicked and weird. It’s violent, it’s vulgar, and it’s wholly Jodorowsky. (Chris Coffel)
7. House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Fried food, clowns, annoying young adults, and the ever-present fear of losing your lunch? No, this isn’t your local fairground. This is the self-consciously bonkers 2003 Rob Zombie film House of 1000 Corpses. With an insatiable desire to walk the line between the silly and the sadistic, House of 1000 Corpses is an overt circus of chaos, from Captain Spaulding’s (Sid Haig) sweaty, fry-oil flecked greasepaint to the freak-show-meets-roadside-attraction that lures our hormonal protagonists into the pits of hell. But much like Zombie’s preeminent inspirational text (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2), House of 1000 Corpses feels like a carnival ride. Whisked from one gruesome, so-outlandish-its-hilarious set piece to the next, our directorial carnival barker invites us to step right up to gape, cower, and giggle at the absolutely ridiculous sights he has to show us. The whole film wafts of giddy, gruesome thrills, like an amusement park re-skinned (pun intended, as it happens) for Halloween. Don’t forget your barf bags! (Meg Shields)
6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Let’s throw it all the way back to the year of 1920, when horror film, and filmmaking in general, was a relatively new concept. Enter The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a piece of integral early cinema that is a quintessential example of the German Expressionist movement, particularly due to its complex and unique set design that shuns realism for a more artistic experience. The film follows the titular Dr. Caligari, who is controlling a sleepwalker named Cesare to commit murders on Caligari’s behalf. It is at the carnival that we meet this duo as Caligari opens up his titular cabinet to reveal his sideshow project. Importantly, this is not the colorful carnival full of yelling kids and cotton candy. No, this is a carnival via German Expressionism, so everything is a little off-kilter and a little unsettling. Something just feels off, which is the perfect tone for this integral piece of horror history. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
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