Monday, August 05, 2019

Celebrating the Big Show, Part 4

Notable! Controversial!
Carnival & Circus Movies!

Films set in carnivals or circuses are legion, perhaps because of showbiz’s own narcissism.  Here are some of the most notorious.

            The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)This triumph of expressionism tells the creepy story of a puppetmaster who sets up at the town fair.  He uses his hypnotic powers of control, forcing a somnambulist to kill at his bidding.  The silent film remains disturbing today.  Its off-kilter sets, inhabited by title character Werner Krauss and the sneaky Conrad Veidt, conspire to draw the viewer into a dreamy Neverland of queasiness and murder.

            Freaks (1932)—After helming Universal’s surprise-smash horror film Dracula (released on Valentine’s Day, 1931), director Tod Browning was given a virtual carte blanche for his next film, to be shot for MGM.  Launched from the 1923 story “Spurs,” Freaks is a pre-Code film that’s now infamous for its unflinching depiction of human oddities, as they live their everyday lives as circus freaks.  The film was withdrawn from release after only three weeks by MGM, and denied release in England for 30 years.  Freaks outraged filmgoers and critics with its storyline too:  A sexy “normal” trapeze artist and her strongman lover lay a plot for her to marry and murder a midget for his inheritance.  However, the pair doesn’t make allowances for the way midget Han’s circus associates stick up for him.  The banquet scene in which the freaks welcome Cleopatra into “the family” is a well-known scene of showcase and spectacle.  But most disturbing of all to 1930s audiences was the revenge of the freaks on Cleopatra, after they uncover her scheme:  The Human Torso inching through the rain with a knife between his teeth; legless Johnny Eck scuttling on his hands.  The result of their vengeance, though marred by 1930s makeup, is still a triumph of tit-for-tat, as the freaks turn the “normal” Olga into … watch for yourself!

            The 1960 low-budget film Carnival of Souls is just weird, telling the story of a gal who wakes up after a car wreck to find herself in an uncertain reality, including wandering an abandoned carnival pavilion.

            What do you get when the world’s biggest rock supergroup decides to pile into a bus and make a movie about wherever they end up?  The 1967 trainwreck-of-a-tale Magical Mystery Tour, presented by the Beatles originally on BBC-TV.   While redeemed by the title song and others like “The Fool on the Hill,” “Blue Jay Way,” and many more, the film itself is an example of what happens when creative geniuses dive into projects with no preparation or concept of their final goal.  Among the scenes are a strip show and a final song by the Fab Four, in tuxedoes strutting before a night-club crowd.  Roll up!

            The Day the Clown Cried (1972)—This unreleased Jerry Lewis film tells the WWII story of a clown who accidentally insults the Reich and is arrested.  Eventually the clown finds himself leading children to the gas chambers, the ultimate evil clown.  The controversy surrounding this film led to Lewis’s donating its print to the Library of Congress, with a stipulation that it not be released until 2025.

            Vampire Circus (1972) tells of a travelling circus and a lot of vampires, as they arrive at a small Austrian town.  Highlights include animal acts and erotic gyrations on the stage between a “tiger woman” and her handler.  Well, that and dismembered bodies, Gypsy fortunetellers, and a vampire battle in an underground crypt.

            The 1980 historical drama The Elephant Man  was set in Victorian England.  Its title character:  Joseph Merrick, a man horribly afflicted with Proteus syndrome, which caused out-of-control growth of some body parts.  He was a freak-show exhibit when discovered by surgeon Frederick Teves, who attempted to research the man under the deformity.  In 1983 English rocker Bruce Foxton released a song “Freak,” based on this movie.

            Funhouse (1981) tells the sad story of a bunch of weeded-out teens who decide to spend the night in a funhouse, never imagining that they’re trespassing in the realm of a deranged murderer who wears a Frankenstein mask.

            Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) was released by Disney after much surgery both before and after production.  Disney spent $5 million after the original wrap, including a new score by James Horner.  The film starred two 12-year-olds who aappear noticeably older in some scenes than others, due to reshoots.  Based on the American prose classic by Ray Bradbury, the story originated as a screenplay written in the early 1960s to star Gene Kelly.  The novel spins a moving tale of friendship and father-son love, both of which come under attack from the denizens of an evil carnival.  The eventual ending is an all-too-common case of too many Disney cooks spoiling the broth.  Nevertheless, the oily, sinister Mr Dark is the role Jonathan Pryce was born to play.

            Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) actually features aliens from space masquerading as clowns.  Still, but they do transform their spaceship into a carnival tent to lure their victims.  Beware Jojo the Klownzilla!

            Clownhouse (1989) is controversial because its director was convicted of the sexual abuse of the 12-year-old star, Nathan Forrest Winters.  In this twisted tale of threes, three escaped mental patients kill three clowns and replace them.  The psychos then lay siege to three boys who are stuck at home alone.

See you in the movies, kids!

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© by Mark Alfred