Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #1: Freaks (1932)
By Amy M. Vaughn

1 October 2020

Freaks (1932)
Director: Tod Browning

The first time I saw Freaks, I was still a teenager. I distinctly remember a frisson traveling through my then-slight frame at the sight of the very unique bodies and abilities on display. It was the 80s; in terms of sideshow culture, we were adrift between the ten-in-one and Jim Rose. What I was seeing was new to me and felt taboo.

My immediate affection for the film was also due to the so-called “freaks” not being the actual monsters of the story. The plot revolves around an elegant trapeze artist who intends to marry a little person for his fortune, but all the while she is carrying on an affair with the strong man. The beautiful people laugh at and show disgust for the freaks. It is made plain that they are the bad guys, while the sideshow performers are portrayed as good and decent people who are only violent when provoked. Little alienated punk rock Amy liked that very much.

Over the years, I’ve gone back to Freaks every now and again, always identifying more with the varied and uncommon than with the fit and statuesque. Over the years, I’ve also gained several different diagnoses of mental illness until finally bipolar came along and stuck. (It’s rapid cycling bipolar 2, for those familiar with the lingo.) I would never claim to know first-hand what the uniquely bodied go through, but I do know what it means to be different. Stories of “freaks” who have adapted to their situation, who have a community looking out for them, who figure out how to live fulfilling lives—those stories speak to me, give me hope. I eat them up. Of course, other people find “freaks” intriguing for very different reasons.

From royal courts to the back rooms of medieval taverns; from rented halls in Victorian England to dime museums in Times Square; and from the circus sideshow to the traveling carnival’s ten-in-one, biologically unique people have spent history making a living by being on display. Freaks simply brought them to the big screen.

Why will the public pay to see “freaks of nature,” especially since, speaking in generalities, people who are not different become uncomfortable around people who are? Whether it’s morbid curiosity or questionable sympathy, disgust or titillating fear, the Other holds fascination, and the uniquely bodied are well aware of the attraction and repulsion they provoke in the average person. So, while it may not ease their discomfort, the commercial exchange gives the viewer permission to stare.

Yet, it isn’t as simple as that.

In his book Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show, Michael Chemers describes the complicated social expectations faced by “people with stigma,” by which he means people who look different.

[P]eople with stigma are expected not to make too much of their misfortunes, not to show bitterness or self-pity, and certainly not to impose themselves too much on normal people, who have their own problems. The rhetoric of equality that pervades American society is ironically pernicious, because it obliges the stigmatized not only to achieve certain goals and take responsibility for their failures but also to be meek and deferential, to perform inferiority; stigmatized people generate resentment when they perform in ways that do not acknowledge this inferiority.

Micheal Chemers

Yet in freak shows, instead of easing people’s discomfort, the disabled poke right at it. Or as Chemers puts it,

Perhaps one reason that freakery continues to compel our attention is its categorical refusal to help alleviate the anxiety that disability produces in nondisabled people. On the contrary, freakery systematically and strategically nurtures that discomfort in order to exploit it for profit (emphasis added).

micheal chemers

He goes on,

[I]ncreasingly, historians and theorists of disability are coming to applaud the freak show for its ability to make transgressive and progressive statements in contrast to dominant ideas about how people with disabilities ought to behave.

michael chemers

Freaks, therefore, was transgressive before that was even a thing. It took a taboo subject and turned it on its ear. The title, Freaks, from the man who directed Dracula just the year before, promised viewers an Other to despise. Instead, it humanized the Other and vilified those who would demean them! Perhaps needless to say, it didn’t go over well in 1932.

But today, Freaks stands up. The edit moves along, though the pace of the movie may be due in part to the half hour Browning was forced to leave on the cutting room floor. Regardless, when the film does bog down, it’s because one person or another is recreating their act, exhibiting their specialness.

In researching my novella Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, I watched Freaks yet again, and I read about the lives of its stars, as well as those of many other sideshow performers. Some of their stories are tragic, but just as many aren’t. The recurring theme seems to be that regardless of the hand life deals you, it’s still up to you to choose how to play those cards.

Within the sideshows those hands varied wildly, and were organized into a hierarchy. First came the “born freaks” (conjoined twins, Armless Wonders, Bearded Ladies, etc.). Then there were the “made freaks” (the Tattooed Ladies, people who had succumbed to accidents, and so on). Third were the working acts (fire eaters, strong men, mesmerists). And finally the gaffed freaks, acts based in deceit (the headless lady, the spider woman).

Johnny Eck, often billed as “The Amazing Half-Boy”, “King of the Freaks” and “The Most Remarkable Man Alive,” starred in Freaks as well as a number of other films.

In the documentary American Carny (2007), Todd Robbins swallows swords, eats glass, hammers nails into his head, and more. Robbins lives and breathes the sideshow, but he won’t let anyone call him a freak. “Freaks,” he says, “are the royalty of the sideshow . . . all the great freak acts were a demonstration of the human spirit’s ability to overcome almost any obstacle, and it was a very empowering experience. So don’t call me a freak, because I am not worthy.”

My intention is to take this humble attitude into our investigation. I won’t be able to talk about every sideshow horror movie ever made, that would require a much longer format. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on those that will tell us something about the perception of the biologically Other in society. Tod Browning’s Freaks, for its part, was an important early step in the struggle for rights and respect for the differently bodied and is still relevant today.

While I doubt we’ll make a very big dent in the problem of the stigma of disability—there’s an entire academic discipline whose job that is—we can raise questions and give the issue our attention. We can seek to better understand the biologically unique in real life and in story. And we can talk about the role of the horror movie as the new sideshow.

My bet here at the outset is that fake mutations and lab-made monsters may abound, but when it comes to the real thing, “freaks” will be treated either fairly, sympathetically, or even with kid gloves, because those of us drawn to horror are often freaks ourselves.

4 out of 5 Gooble Gobbles

Available for rent nearly anywhere online that rents movies.

Freak Night: The Sideshow in Cinema


by Amy M. Vaughn

31 October 2020

What can we say here at the end of this series of reviews about the sideshow in horror cinema? Well, we know that movies have had a long and complicated relationship with people who have unusual bodies, but that’s nothing new. And, while uniquely shaped people were a central aspect of our investigation, the other part, the sideshow part, complicates our subject matter, adding not least the idea of a staged performance within a film, a play within a play.

But if those were the only criteria, why not include films like The Elephant Man (1980) or The Dark Backward (1991)? If we were only concerned with performances of the uniquely bodied, we could have. But those films were about John Merrick and Marty Malt, whereas the sideshow is always a group and usually one portrayed as a family.

Maybe that’s the key—the sideshow is a family of Others, a group with their own laws and culture, and their own requirements for membership; and one of those requirements is to have been shunned by the world at large. Is this why the sideshow is such fertile ground for horror? It’s shorthand for different and weird and transient and unpredictable, which are the very things that make it attractive to people who don’t fit in with the mainstream and frightening to those who do.

For nearly a century, moviemakers have used the shorthand of the sideshow and the shock of unusual bodies, more often than not, to teach the audience (if they’re listening) to be more compassionate and less judgmental—or else! Freaks, House of the Damned, The Freakmaker, and Freakshow—the movies in this series most focused on life in the sideshow—all encourage an empathic understanding of the Other, who really isn’t an Other at all.

There haven’t been many movies about sideshows made in the 21st century. And because of state laws against displaying anomalous bodies for profit, today’s in-person sideshows are, for the most part, made up of working acts: fire eaters, human pincushions, that kind of neat stuff. While people are fighting to change those laws, to give the differently bodied the choice to go on the road again if they want to, in the meantime, television has stepped in as a venue for presenting unusual bodies. Not only are there series like Carnivàle and American Horror Story: Freak Show but there are docudramas about little people and very fat people; shows about strong men and women; and gut-wrenching mini-series on the separation of conjoined twins.

Some of the cast of American Horror Story: Freak Show

There are three things that, to my mind, make these nonfiction accounts more heartrending and perhaps exploitative than seeing an unusually bodied person in a sideshow. One is that their issues have been medicalized and labeled as problems where they used to be celebrated. Another is that these people are not performers taking joy in what they do.  And thirdly, very often they seem (or are edited to seem) desperately lonely, which we are meant to interpret as the terrible price of their disorder or deformity, but which could as easily be seen as a lack of the type of supportive group and extended family a sideshow could provide.  

Maybe some of us romanticize what was for many a necessary evil. And certainly, we should be glad that anti-discrimination laws are in place to protect the uniquely bodied from fates suffered in the past. But there’s still a long way to go before the stereotypes that lead to rash judgments and unfair treatment are completely broken down and replaced with equality and acceptance. And while they might not have much sway, the vast majority of horror movies set in the sideshow have tried their best to make things at least a little better for those who lived there.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #10: Skins (Pieles) (2017)

Directed by Eduardo Casanova

By Amy M. Vaughn

29 October 2020

Skins is not a horror movie. Not really. The Spanish film is about people who are radically differently bodied, although not always in the ways we’ve been talking about in this series of reviews. Some do possess more traditional types of uniqueness; for instance, there are a couple of little people. (Has every movie in this series had a little person?) Then there are examples of other real-life disorders and deformities, like the man who is covered with burn scars and the woman with a large tumor pulling down one side of her face. There is a young man with Body Integrity Identity Disorder, who does not recognize his legs as his own and wants them removed so he can become a merman. And the cast goes even further afield with a woman who has no eyes or eye sockets, just skin grown over where they “ought” to be, and finally a woman whose ass is on her face; because her digestive system is inverted, her cheeks are plump like a butt and her mouth is an anus.

So, no, Skins isn’t a horror movie, but it may “freak” some people out.

The stories of all of these characters illustrate themes like self-hatred and -acceptance, being misunderstood and alone, and being the object of adoration and fetishes. Their storylines cross and interweave, and even the heaviest is told with a light hand, provoking empathy rather than sympathy. (Even for buttface girl. Maybe especially for buttface girl.) This is an important distinction. Skins is a weird movie. It starts out weird and runs with it, but still manages to present every character as human first and unique second, driving home that what we have in common far outweighs what makes us different. Hence we are provoked to empathy—feeling with them—rather than to sympathy—the outsider’s response of feeling for them, giving them pity.

Why include buttface girl at all? Why not a differently bodied person who does exists, who could have been cast, who wouldn’t be so simultaneously silly and hard to look at? I can’t speak for Casanova, who both wrote and directed this as his debut feature length film, but for me, buttface girl takes the act of physical transgression to another level. The other disabilities and deformities seem much less severe next to her. It’s all relative. And then there’s the opportunity she affords for John Waters-esque humor and an ending that was conceivably far more shocking in predominantly Catholic Spain and before “eating ass” had become at least somewhat culturally accepted.

Diamonds for eyes

I loved Skins. After my first viewing I had no doubt that I would watch it again. It’s fascinating, weird, garish, and heartfelt. There’s enough symbolism to be meaningful but not so much as to be esoteric. Skins is a movie about freak-love—the lack of it, the pathology of it, the victims of it, and the recipients of it. For most of the film, the normal people are either exploiting the differently bodied or failing miserably at trying to love them.

The weirdest thing about Skins might be that, for all of the sadness and alienation and heartbreak, almost everyone gets a happy ending. In fact, the ending is so upbeat, it’s kind of cheesy, but it would take a hard heart indeed to begrudge these freaks their happiness.

Skins has its faults. The large cast and multitude of storylines already limits the depth to which any one plotline can go, and the happy endings, for those who get them, come on too quickly to feel genuine. So, while this may not be the perfect ensemble “freak” movie with which to bookend this series (not least because it has nothing to do with sideshows), I believe it belongs in the discussion as a commentary on how the differently bodied still struggle for acceptance in a world that may be post-freakshow but is still simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by their extraordinary forms.

4 out of 5 Eye Diamonds

Available on Netflix.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #9: Crustacean (2009)

Director: L. J. Dopp

By Amy M. Vaughn

27 October 2020

If you have a soft spot for no-budget, make-do horror, there are things about Crustacean you’d appreciate. Professor Nightwind’s Freak Show is made up of Wolf Boy, who wears a plastic snout; a bearded woman, who is neither bearded nor a woman; twin “pinheads” who are conjoined because their shirts are tied together; the skeleton of the world’s tallest midget; a pirate; and the middle aged Lobster Baby, who we are led to believe is the only true anomaly of the bunch. And of course it is Lobster Baby who takes a fancy to a local, breaks out of his cage somehow, and goes on a killing spree until he gets hit on the head and remembers his life before the sideshow. Then he and the local girl live happily ever after.

Ectrodactyly, the so-called lobster malformation.

There’s a lot more to it, and most of it has to do with rednecks, twins, and inbreeding. What makes any of this worthwhile, and I use that term loosely, are the occasional bits of self-referential movie-making humor that really are funny. There’s ridiculousness plastered all over this movie; it’s literally flashed on the screen as well as being snuck in from the side.

Overall, it’s far more offensive to rednecks than to freaks. L. J. Dopp knew his sideshow history, even if he didn’t have the funds to really display it.

At times, this movie is smart. At times, it’s so dumb you have to laugh. But after the first half hour or so, the jokes wane, the plot drags, and even the contrived appearances of boobs disappear. What this movie needs is a fan edit to pare it down to just the good stuff. Until that happens, which is likely never, I cannot in good conscience recommend Crustacean. To do otherwise would just be shellfish.

2 out of 5 Sets of Implausible Twins

Available at well-stocked video stores.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #8: Freakshow (2007)

Directed by Drew Bell

By Amy M. Vaughn

24 October 2020

This movie isn’t good, but it might have some redeeming qualities.

Freakshow bills itself as an unofficial remake of Freaks (1932). The setup is that a group of murderous thieves is hiding out in a carnival as rousties. They’re waiting for opening night so they can steal the nut (aka earnings). One of the criminals is a busty, pout-lipped female who overhears the boil-covered carnival owner say he wants to sell some of his properties and settle down. She decides to seduce him, marry him, and kill him in order to inherit everything he owns.

So, yeah, there are a few ways the film is like Freaks. The setting is a carnival and a beautiful woman is trying to take advantage of someone who is biologically unique. Oh, and it’s supposed to be set in the 30s, but for that to be true we need to ignore the modern cars in the background and the guys with huge metal gauges in their ears who swing around from hooks through more gauges in the flesh of their shoulder blades. I’m not saying that being suspended by hooks wouldn’t have been an act in the old days, but the shiny steel gauges didn’t exist. Plus, it would have been more likely to happen at a Wild West show since the tradition comes from a native tribe called the Mandan.

Another way Freakshow is like Freaks is that there are real physically anomalous people. There’s an armless knife thrower, a man with no legs, a little person, a young man with hypertrichosis (a Dog Faced Boy), and a bearded lady. There are also gaffs (or fakes): a woman with a flipper hand, a girl with facial deformities billed in the credits as a mongoloid, and a person with bulbous protrusions on their head reminiscent of Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man.

They also have a half-n-half, a person billed as half man and half woman. The problem with half-n-halfs has always been that they are split down the center, which isn’t really how it biologically works. There were real hermaphrodites on the circuit back in the day, but as rare as they were, and as taboo as it was to show genitalia (even in the name of “science” or “education”), people of both sexes were almost always saved for the blow-off.

Eli Harmer, the Camel Girl, shown in the film’s opening credits

The movie is, as I mentioned, not good. It’s both the writing and the acting that kill it. But then a person goes by on a unicycle juggling fire sticks and all is forgiven for another ten minutes. So the pouty-lipped criminal, Lucy, seduces the ugly, boil-covered show runner. He asks her to marry him and they recreate the iconic dinner party. But instead of saying, “One of us,” perhaps out of fear of copyright infringement, they say, “Welcome Lucy.” Lucy freaks out, says mean things, and runs away.

Then there’s this weird subplot about two of the accomplices scalping and decapitating a developmentally disabled “freak” child. My guess is it’s there because they couldn’t justify killing five people just because one of them said mean things. Anyway, the carnies cremate their dead and mutilated family member in a burn barrel, and then, in ways best suited to their unique biologies and abilities, the freaks kill the four male criminals. While they lack the suspense and menace of the same scenes in the original Freaks, the kills are still kind of fun.

Finally, the sideshow family tortures and mutilates Lucy in a scene that goes on way too long, and that’s me saying that. I’m usually all the way on board for old school prosthetics and special effects. What could be going on here is an attempted recreation of the 30 minutes of footage Tod Browning was forced to edit out of his original film. Thirty minutes, so the story goes, that mostly consisted of the freaks mutilating the “bride” into the birdwoman and castrating the Strong Man.

Whether or not that was Bell’s intention, Lucy really gets it. They cut out her tongue, sew her mouth closed, cut off her eyelids, remove her toes, open one of her boobs and dig around in it, and on and on. And because of movie magic, she lives (!) to become Winnie the Worm, the newest attraction in the “Gallery of Strange People,” even though she looks more like something out of Hellraiser—being just a skinless torso and head—than anything you’d see on a sideshow banner.

Freakshow loves its freaks. In the story, the normal people are all evil or weak (which makes this different from Freaks,in which the knife thrower’s assistant and the clown were at least sympathetic). In filming Freakshow, the freaks get center stage. It’s as if the normal bodied people are only there so the unique people can be in frame. The freaks are even better actors than the non-freaks.

Freakshow isn’t scary, it isn’t well written or acted, the indoor sets are questionable at best, and it isn’t a very good remake. But it is quite plainly a labor of love.

3 out of 5 Josephine Josephs

Available on Tubi.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #7: Sideshow (2000)

Director: Fred Olen Ray

By Amy M. Vaughn

22 October 2020

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sideshow-poster.jpg

Sideshow is not a good movie but it is a decent bad movie. Did I mention Fred Olen Ray (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Scream Queen Hot Tub Party (1991)) directed the film?

 The movie begins with a quintet of “teenagers”—a double date and the younger, wheelchair-bound brother of one of the boys—going to the carnival. Early on, the self-centered jerk stereotype of the group picks up a little person as if he were a child. And thus the asshole is marked for death.

Besides the little person (Phil Fondacaro), who is Dr. Graves of Dr. Graves’ Horrors of Nature sideshow, the other differently shaped people in this movie are all the product of practical special effects. They include Conjoin-O, a strong man and his talking, parasitic twin; Hans the Bug Boy, who is not unlike a human-sized Zorak from Space Ghost from Coast to Coast; Digestina, who bathes naked in a vat of digestive acid and doesn’t eat through her mouth; and Aelita, the Inside Out Girl, who dances a strip tease that ends with pulling open her skin.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lazarus-and-joannes-baptista-colloredo-an-ex-of-real-parasitic-twin.jpg
Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, example of a real 17th Century parasitic twin

As the night proceeds, one by one, the members of the quintet find themselves the victim of a large tube-shaped machine that alters them into freaks according to their dominant traits.

Like I said, the movie isn’t good. Scream queen royalty Brinke Stevens, playing the fortune teller, is the most well-known and possibly best of the actors. Sometimes the carnival has a crowd, sometimes the grounds are eerily empty. Night turns to day suddenly. But love for the sideshow is evident.

Nearly half the movie takes place in the sideshow tent, which is decorated with a stuffed cow with two heads, a Fiji mermaid, and a bird person in homage to Freaks (1932). In his youth, Fred Olen Ray worked at a carnival and his affection for the sideshow comes through not just in these set dressing details, but in the character of the younger brother, who is the designated expert in all things sideshow.

The sideshow performers are vengeful murderers, but they are portrayed as justified in their actions. In amongst the unnecessary boobs and the old school special effects gags, the message of this movie is clear: don’t judge a person by what’s on the outside; it’s what’s on the inside that we should really be afraid of!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sidedvd_sideshow.jpg

3 out of 5 Fiji Mermaids

Available on Tubi.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review 7, Bonus Double Review:

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Directed by Jack Clayton

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

Directed by Paul Weitz

By Amy M. Vaughn

20 October 2020

These two movies have a lot of similarities. To start, both center on a pair of boys, best friends, who sneak off to see a traveling show. In the case of Something Wicked This Way Comes, that show is a Faustian carnival. In Cirque du Freak, it is a freakshow. And in both cases, the boys’ lives are changed forever.

It isn’t only the friendships that suggest reviewing these movies together, they’re also both made for young people. SWTWC is an actual Disney film, whereas Cirque feels for all the world like a Disney channel made-for-TV movie, even though it isn’t. A major difference between them, however, is in the writing. SWTWC is based on a story by Ray Bradbury, and he helped write the screenplay. Cirque, on the other hand, was based on a book by Darren Shan, who named his lead character Darren Shan. Story-wise, they really aren’t in the same league. SWTWC is a classic literary tale, whereas the plot in Cirque is based entirely on every single main character making improbable decisions.

But there is still more they have in common, such as their outsized budgets when compared to the rest of the movies under review here. SWTWC cost $19 million, and Cirque had twice that to work with, most of it going to big name cast members and CGI.

As far as the uniquely bodied go, SWTWC doesn’t have many, but who they do have is noteworthy. There is a little person who works for the carvinal, and there is a double amputee who owns the local bar. The little person is played by Angelo Rossitto, who has 99 acting credits to his name. His career spanned from playing Angeleno in Freaks (1932) to The Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). And Ed the Bartender was played by James Stacy, a television and film actor who, halfway through his career, lost his left arm and leg when his motorcycle was hit by a drunk driver. He returned to work two years later. But Ed isn’t with the carnival; Ed is one of the townspeople who gets ensnared in a Faustian deal.

In Cirque, there is no shortage of “freaks,” and most of them are played by very big name actors: Ken Watanabe is Mr. Tall; Orlando Jones plays a man with no flesh from his ribs to his hips; Salma Hayek is a clairvoyant sometimes-bearded lady; Jane Krakowski can regrow limbs; Kristin Schaal has very strong, very large teeth; and the list goes on. The problem posed for us, in a series of reviews about the differently bodied in sideshow cinema, is that none of these—except the very tall man—is grounded in the reality of the differently bodied. It’s all very cartoony: the snake boy doesn’t have ichthyosis, he’s more of a snake-human hybrid; then there’s the man whose entire face is a giant nose and another whose forehead is two feet tall. SWTWC, then, has more differently bodied people than Cirque du Freak by two, which is all it has.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant in all its voice cracking glory.

Even with the lack of uniquely bodied people, both of these movies have the same freak-friendly moral: it’s what’s inside that counts, or be content with who you are. In SWTWC, the people who long for things to be different—to be younger, to have all their limbs—make easy pickings for Jonathan Pryce’s iconic Mr. Dark. And in the afterschool special that is Cirque du Freak, they spell it out for us: “[It] isn’t about what you are, it’s about who you are.”

One final similarity these films share is that neither is really about the traveling show. The festive carnival settings are just backdrops for the supernatural: Mr. Dark in SWTWC and the vampire Mr. Crepsley in Cirque. The freaks are hardly more than set dressing, again, same as in Sssssss and The Freakmaker. Is it because naturally occurring biological Others aren’t enough anymore or are they too much?

These weren’t my favorite films in this series of reviews, but that might just be because they’re kids’ movies. Then again, if my kid were at that age where they watch their favorite movie over and over, day in and day out, there are plenty worse than these two to be stuck with.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

4 out of 5 Pam Grier Dust Witches

Available on YouTube.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

3 out of 5 Salma Hayek Madame Truskas

Available on Netflix or to rent from most streaming services.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, is out today from Thicke & Vaney Books and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #5: The Funhouse (1981)

Directed by Tobe Hooper

By Amy M. Vaughn

Also released as Carnival of Terror, The Funhouse is a good times 80s slasher. It begins with an homage to Halloween (1978)—the younger, mask-wearing brother with a knife is stalking his older sister—but that turns out to be just a prank. Then the hetero-gender-matched foursome of late-teen/early 20-year-olds (who all appear far too old for their roles) heads to the carnival, even though they know two girls died at this fair’s last stop. The couples take in the attractions: see a magician, visit a fortune teller, spy on the strippers, and go to the freakshow.

The freakshow is populated by living animals, and though the barker promises 18, we are shown only two and they’re both cows. One has a cleft palate and the other a second face. As a special attraction, there is a pickled punk— a human baby in a jar whose skull is malformed. It looks as if it wanted to split down the center.

On a lark, the foursome decides to spend the night inside the Funhouse, the outside of which is decorated with a pterodactyl, a castle, a pirate, and a Chinese dragon among other things. The inside—a sort of haunted house ride—is no more cohesive.

Of course it is within the Funhouse that the murder and mayhem go down. Up to this point there have been subtle hints of the old freakshows—a little man kissing an average-sized woman; an animatronic Fat Lady perched atop the Funhouse; a mannequin of a very, very tall Chinese man—and a viewer would be forgiven if they thought the anomalously bodied were going to get an even shake from this flick. They would be wrong, but they could be forgiven.

The unhinged, nearly animalistic murderer turns out to be none other than the older brother of the baby in the jar. His skull is spread from the center and each side of his face has its own nose. He has snake-like fangs and, because he’s albino to boot, his eyes are red. He is savage and mute. This is not the sympathetic view of the differently bodied we’ve grown used to in this series. This is using “freak” as a cover for “monster.” The only saving grace, if there is one, is that there’s so little about him that’s human, he’s really more of a creature than a person. That, and the way he’s disfigured isn’t based on any known anomaly. 

Film novelization by Dean Koontz under the name Owen West

Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)) and writer Larry J. Block knew their carnival and sideshow lore, and they merged it with the late 70s/early 80s slasher motif in a way that makes for good fun. There isn’t much depth to the freaks in this film, but there are laughs and gasps and groans—everything you could ask for from Tobe Hooper in 1981.

3 ½ out of 5 Pickled Punks

Available for rent from most streaming services.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, will be released this October 20th from Thicke & Vaney Books and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #4

The Freakmaker (1974)

Directed by Jack Cardiff

By Amy M. Vaughn

The Freakmaker (also released as The Mutations) is a straight up mid-70s sci-fi horror about a mad scientist (Donald Pleasance) who wants to crossbreed humans with carnivorous plants. And that’s me, already sold. In standard horror movie fashion, there are college kids who look too old to be in college, and plenty of unnecessary boob shots. In not so standard fashion, there is an excess of time lapse photography, some of which is set to sultry jazz.

The laboratory set is fun. The giant bunny-eating plants are fun. The makeup and special effects are fun, too. The whole thing is just a schlocky good time. But where are the freaks? Especially for a movie said to have been inspired by Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), the central plotline so far is completely freak-free.

The connection is through a man named Lynch (Tom Baker), who owns a freakshow and who used to be billed as the Ugliest Man in the World. Lynch has decided he wants to be normal, and the mad scientist has promised to make that happen in exchange for subjects on which to experiment, subjects who just happen to be his students and the over-aged college kids we’ve already met.

And so, the two worlds collide. When the “college” kids go to the carnival, we get to see the whole act. Several members of the sideshow were big names in the business in the 70s, including Willie Ingram (Popeye), Esther Blackmon (Alligator Girl), Hugh Baily (Pretzel Boy), and Felix Duarte (Frog Boy). The troupe also had a bearded lady, a human pincushion, a human skeleton, and several little people.

Ex of icythyosis, like Esther Blackmon who plays Alligator Girl

This detour from the main plotline is as near an accurate example of a ten-in-one show as you’re likely to see in a movie. Run by a little person, the “freaks” come on stage one at a time, reveal their physical anomaly, and then tell their story. This last part, telling their story, was hugely important to the sideshows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It humanized the person on stage while filling the audience with an awareness of their own good fortune, the combination of which induced a feeling of magnanimity in their audience (aka the rubes). And that’s when the talker would traditionally offer the blow-off, an unadvertised act that could be seen for just a little more. The show in The Freakmaker did indeed have a blow-off, which made me appreciate it all the more.

Lynch, the Ugliest Man in the World, is rotten to the members of the sideshow family, even threatening his right-hand man with institutionalization, which was presumably possible at the time based solely on his unique biology. The movie recreates the feast scene from Freaks, even lifting whole lines, including “One of us.” But Lynch comes and ruins everything. All of this sets us up for the scene when the sideshow family takes him out, which happens to be at an opportune time for the main plot, too. While the murder was premeditated, it is meant to be seen as an act of self-preservation—Lynch was a threat to their freedom and their livelihood.

Is the movie trying to say that Lynch is evil because he cannot accept who or what he is? At one point he must have established this company with himself at the center as the Ugliest Man in the World. Why the change of heart? But the movie isn’t really about Lynch, so those questions go unanswered.

As much as I appreciate the humanity The Freakmaker brings to the sideshow performers, it isn’t really about any of them. Not the way Freaks is. Not the way Skins (2017) is. While the unusually bodied play a more substantial role than the cartoonishly large laboratory apparatus and the bleeding plants, they are background characters at best.

This is a movie about a mad scientist who wants to turn people into plants and plants into people. I would just hope that these days, nearly 50 years later, the conflation between lab-made freaks of nature and naturally occurring anomalous physical traits wouldn’t fly so easily. The Freakmaker is, however, an important time capsule in the empathic depiction of the differently bodied.

4 out of 5 Carnivorous Plants

Available on Prime.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, will be released this October 20th from Thicke & Vaney Books and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #3

Sssssss (1973)

Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

By Amy M. Vaughn

The film, Sssssss is, not surprisingly, about snakes. More to the point, it is about a mad scientist who is determined to speed up the next step in evolution by creating a snake-human hybrid. Unfortunately, he’s having to break more than a few eggs to make this particular omelet, and the intro to the movie shows him selling a failed experiment to the owner of a sideshow.

Most of Sssssss centers on two things. Firstly, snakes—frequent and extended scenes with snakes. So many, in fact, that there’s a statement at the beginning of the film that says, “All the reptiles in this film are real. . . . We want to thank the cast and crew for their courageous efforts while being exposed to extremely hazardous conditions.” William Castle (the father of the schlock spectacle experience) would be proud!

The second focus of this film is a young Dirk Benedict, better known as Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978) and as Templeton “Faceman” Peck on the A-Team (1983-1987), being slowly turned into (spoiler!) a snake. But before he fully turns, he takes the mad doctor’s daughter to the carnival, where we get to see the sideshow, including the failed experiment from the beginning.

Besides the Snakeman, the sideshow has several other attractions, among them are little people; a Strong Man; brother and sister “Siamese” twins (which is highly unlikely since conjoined twins are monozygotic); a man with two noses, who appears to have a second nose stuck onto the side of his original nose; and Sam Lee the Seal Boy, played by Felix Silla, an actor and stunt man with nearly 50 acting credits to his name, who is also a little person. But most interesting to me is the actor who played the Snakeman.

Sssssss was the film debut of Noble Craig, who lost both legs, an arm, and much of the sight in his right eye in the Vietnam War. After Sssssss, he would go on to have parts in Poltergeist II, Big Trouble in Little China, The Blob, A Nightmare on Elm Street V, and Bride of Re-animator. All of which makes one wonder, did horror movies take over the role of the sideshow, not only becoming a medium for disgust and fear, but also providing the differently bodied with a forum to make a living displaying themselves? Or is being in a movie somehow different? Is acting the role of a sideshow act different than being a sideshow act?

Sssssss Noble Craig as the Snakeman

Later, when the daughter returns to the carnival to learn the truth, we see the sideshow performers sitting around backstage. They may have unusual bodies, but they’re portrayed as regular folks off the clock, which reminds us that neither born freaks nor made freaks are the villains of this piece. As with every mad scientist story, hubris is the culprit.

Besides posing questions and being perhaps Dirk Benedict’s least dignified role ever, this movie doesn’t have much to recommend it: some gaping plot holes, some really terrible science, some snakes that sound like scared pigs. The best thing about Sssssss is that somebody got to name a movie Sssssss.

2.5 out of 5 Snakemen

Available from very well-stocked video stores, as a very poor quality version on YouTube, or to buy from eBay or Amazon.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, will be released this October from Thicke & Vaney Books.

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review 2: House of the Damned (1963), Directed by Maury Dexter

6 October 2020

By Amy Vaughn

In the 1940s, states started to make the exhibition of unusual people illegal, and sideshows fell from fashion and stayed that way for decades. Because of this, there aren’t many mid-century movies that fit our bill. Even with all the cheesy goodness that came out of 60s movie culture, I was only able to find one film that might fall under the category of “Sideshow Cinema”: the superficial and yet somehow still complicated House of the Damned.

The framework for House of the Damned is that the lease has recently run out on an old castle, and an architect and his wife are hired to evaluate whether it should be repaired or demolished. While they are there, mysterious events occur. One of these events is finding an obviously sedated cat. Another is discovering the dead body of the previous tenant, Captain Arbuckle, who ran a “tent show.” His decomposing corpse lies in bed and is nearly buried in cobwebs.

There are strange shadows, hairy fingers lifting keys, a headless woman, and a woman’s face behind the mesh of a cabinet door—a cabinet in which a person ought not to fit. In the end, it is a group of sideshow performers living in the basement who were trying to scare the couple away. The troupe is made up of a Fat Lady, a man with no legs, a woman with no arms or legs (hence fitting in the cabinet), and a very tall man (played by the great Richard Kiel). The Headless Lady, sadly, was a gaff.

Frieda Pushnik, Richard Kiel, Ayllene Gibbons, and John Gilmore.

When the architect discovers them, he says, “You’re all . . .”

To which the Fat Lady responds, “You can say it Mr. Campbell—freaks.”

“No,” he says, “I was going to say carnival people.” Which looks for all the world like the movie trying to politely excuse its premise. However, while I can’t say the plot never would have worked if the family in the basement had been biologically average (see Parasite (2019)), the uniquely bodied make this film what it is. Who are the titular “damned” if not the “freaks” in the cellar?

The Fat Lady explains that Captain Arbuckle took them in “when the sideshows began to break up.” Then, when he died, they locked the door to the castle because “they didn’t know what else to do.”

The magnanimous beautiful people deign not to call the police, but they do make it clear that the sideshow people have to go—like, right now. Do not pass Go, do not pack a bag, just get on out of here. As this becomes clear, the dialogue between the armless, legless woman and the Fat Lady ends the movie on a complicated note.

“Come along. It’s time for us to leave,” the Fat Lady says.

“Where will be go?” asks the armless, legless woman.

“We’ll have to find a carnival again. It won’t be so bad.”

The faces.”

“Oh come along. Come along. We’ve all been looked at before.”

Again, the movie seems to be apologizing for the fate of its villains. Or are they the victims? The writer, Harry Spalding, claimed to have been inspired by Freaks (1932) and the question of where did all the sideshow people go? Evidently, he couldn’t come up with a very good answer, since these folks are setting off to find a sideshow that we’ve been told doesn’t exist anymore.

But I don’t really blame him. The question is a tough one, especially if the underlying assumption is that, with the end of the freakshows, a certain subset of the biologically unique lost their means of sustenance while simultaneously being freed from an existence in which they were forced to live as objects of disgust.

We can’t be certain, however, that sideshow people resented their way of life. In fact, there are plenty of stories to the contrary. And while they have certainly been romanticized, surely there were unusual people who preferred the sideshow to an institution, which would have been their only alternative; or who preferred to be around other people who were different; or who were happy to earn a living and not rely on the generosity of others or handouts from the state (the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and so on, wasn’t passed until the 1990s); and surely there were those who plain enjoyed performing.

Instead, House of the Damned assumes that the sideshow tent is a terrible place where people gawk and jeer, a place from which no good can come.

Spalding wasn’t an academic or a journalist. He was a scriptwriter who spent the 60s and 70s churning out drive-in fodder, not social commentary. In House of the Damned, he’s reflecting the cultural perspective of the time, which seems to boil down to, “What a shame!”

3 out of 5 Headless Ladies

Available to rent from very well-stocked video stores and to buy from eBay and Amazon.