We celebrate circus culture history with a look at 8 great circus horror films
Some reacted with cheers, others with hanging heads when, over the weekend, the people at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
announced that their iconic circus would be taking down the tent for good after 146 years in business.
Founded by revered showman
P.T. Barnum and death-defying acrobat outfit Ringling Bros., the circus was, once upon a time, the apex of entertainment, with children (who literally often plotted to run away from home and join the show) thrilling to the clowns, human oddities, wild aerial acts and show-stopping animal antics. The latter antics were diminished when animal rights groups recently rallied to liberate mistreated elephants (thankfully) and other beasts whose place in the circus have long been plagued with controversy. But the real reason the show must not go on is that kids have too much to distract them 24 hours a day. The circus is antiquated, forever trapped in a time warp and laced with a kind of secret seediness as only traveling shows filled with people who live by their own, clandestine rules can have.
RELATED: Pennywise the clown says hello in Stephen King’s IT
Horror movies have long set their action at “The Greatest Show on Earth,” tapping into the tawdrier aspects of circus life while also celebrating the once beloved spectacle.
So while we say goodbye to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s legacy as a touring show (though we do suspect admirers of circus culture will revive the art at some point), we combed through our vaults and picked 8 great horror films that celebrate circus life while exploring its darker side.
Barnum himself once famously wrote, “This way to the Egress…”
Tod Browning literally ran away from home and joined the circus and his early silent films celebrated the dark side of the Big Top. Which is why his breakthrough film, 1931's Dracula, was a bit of an odd fit for him. But his next film, this film, would be the movie that would define his career. Conversely, it is also the movie that ruined his career. Browning's bizarre, fragmented portrait of the seedy side of the circus and the code of the sideshow freaks shocked audiences when it was released and was buried by MGM. But it has long been recognized as one of the strangest and most influential horror films in history.
Circus of Horrors (1960)
Amazing, tawdry and wildly cruel British horror melodrama starring Anton Diffring as narcissistic but brilliant plastic surgeon who takes over a small European circus and makes it the biggest in the land. But when his cabal of "cut" criminal starlets - who serve as his main attractions - try to run out him...look out! This writer worships this movie. Tons of fun and the ample and authentic circus sequences are amazing.
She Freak (1967)
Not a circus movie exactly, more a downmarket trashy carnival flick, but it makes our list because it's produced by a legit circus man, exploitation legend David Friedman. This is 5 cent version of Browning's Freaks, with endless scenes of carnival action and a greasy plot about a skank who screws with the wrong carnies and gets turned into a weird snake gremlin. Or something. This is one daft and awesomely awful Z-movie that is held in high regard by many maniacs.
Like Circus of Horrors, this British potboiler produced by Herman Cohen excels at showing daily life in a fairly large circus, with real professionals bumping up against the actors, including Joan Crawford in one of her last few roles.Judy Geeson plays Crawford's troubled daughter in this skeezy and fun circus slasher flick with a lovely John Scott score.
Vampire Circus (1972)
Director Robert Young's stunningly dark Hammer horror classic is regarded by many as the best of the studio's '70s output. We adore it. In it, a vampire Count who kills children and seduces women is staked by the locals but not before swearing a blood curse on the land. Years later, that curse is fulfilled in the form of a circus full of vampires and shapeshifters that drifts into town. Marvelous, erotic and violent entertainment as only Hammer could produce.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
The Chiodo Brothers' bonkers and beautiful instant cult favorite isn't set in a legit circus...it IS a circus! In it, a spaceship Big Top tent descends from space and brings down an alien race of clown monsters who shoot their human prey with cotton-candy ray guns, terrorize them with shadow puppets and turn them into fleshy ventriloquist dummies. Chances are you know and love this wonderfully insane one-shot flick but in case you haven't seen it, stop reading this and fix that problem stat.
Santa Sangre (1989)
The only outright horror movie made by revered Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, Santa Sangre is a hyper-sexual, stunning and startling peek into the most maniacal circus the screen has ever seen, with eye-popping set pieces including a funeral of an elephant that you will never forget. Endless baroque, bloody imagery and an immaculate soundtrack by Simon Boswell.
Circus of the Dead (2014)
Billy Pon's much hyped and ultra-violent killer clown road movie sees a tent-load of clowns led by Papa Corn (Bill Oberst Jr.) traveling from town to town tearing apart those they deem to be morally corrupt. Tons of splattery, grease-paint-smeared fun...