The key location of Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film

The key location of Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film Night Tide is a carnival on a marina, poised between land and sea. In this liminal space, customers pay to see sideshow attraction Mora the Mermaid (Linda Lawson) - even as she herself has come to believe that she really is a hybrid creature suited to both terrestrial and marine living.

In other words, fairgrounds are places of illusion, freakery and willing suspension of disbelief. In them, people seek thrills and take risks, and resident carnies, barkers, fortune tellers and freaks mask private lives behind public performances. Cinema itself offers similar diversions - and it is hardly a coincidence that it was often at fairgrounds, in travelling bioscope shows, that the very earliest films were exhibited at the turn of the last century.

Here are ten titles that blur the line between film and fairground attraction.

1. Nightmare Alley (1947)

“Is a guy born that way?” asks Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) about the geek, that sideshow attraction who occupies the lowest rung of a travelling carnival’s hierarchy by biting the heads off chickens in exchange for booze. “I can’t understand how anybody could get so low.”

Stanton’s own ambitions are much higher, as he parlays his con artist spiel into a role beyond the fairground as cultic spiritualist advisor to the gullible rich, making him the toast of Chicago society. Yet his own hubris sees him meeting his match in a femme fatale (Helen Walker), and ultimately plummeting all the way to rock bottom.

Despite the addition of a semi-redemptive ending, Edmund Goulding’s fairground noir, adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 pulp novel, is as bleak as they come: a portrait of one man’s rise and fall in the carnivalesque pecking order.


2. The Third Man (1949)

American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) visits divided Vienna to take a job from his old schoolfriend Harry Lime, only to learn that Lime has been killed. Like a cloak-and-dagger ’tec from one of his own fictions, Martins investigates, only to discover that Lime has been stealing, diluting and reselling penicillin on the blackmarket, and may not be dead.

Scripted by Grahame Greene, Carol Reed’s post-war noir carefully builds to the reunion of Martins and Lime (Orson Welles) - an encounter which eventually takes place on the Wiener Risenrad (Vienna ferris wheel), at the entrance of the city’s Prater amusement park. Here, Martins is exposed to the full cynicism and sociopathy of his one-time friend, from a vantage point where the populace below is reduced to the size of ants. Indeed Lime treats all of Vienna as a shadowy playground, where he controls the smoke and mirrors.


3. La Ronde (1950)

Also set in Vienna (with the Prater’s Riesenrad visible in the background), Max Ophüls’ film offers a wry look at the erotic affairs of turn-of-the-century Austrians from all classes and walks of life. This adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play is choreographed to an Oskar Strauss waltz, its triple-time pulse serving as the musical equivalent of all the love triangles on display. Yet it is an amusement ride, the carousel (ronde, in French), which gives the film its title and also its key metaphor.

As each of the characters moves from one partner to another in a dizzying circuit of shifting affections, love is revealed to be like the merry-go-round that our on-screen narrator (Anton Walbrook) - an arch, protean ringmaster - circles and extols. At one point, he is even shown working away at the carousel’s cranks and gears to “keep it going” - after one young lover has fallen short of the amatory task at hand.


4. Carnival of Souls (1962)

Three hours after her car plunges into a river during a drag race gone wrong, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) miraculously emerges from the waters. Taking up a job as a church organist in Utah, she is drawn to a decaying pavilion on the Great Salt Lake. It was originally a ’pretty ritzy’ bathhouse until the lake’s waters receded, then it became a dancehall and finally a carnival, before closing down. In this haunted space, with its silted layers of history, Mary finds her own fugitive past catching up with her.

The only feature by industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey, this eerie variant on Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge transforms an old abandoned amusement park into a literal limbo where the danse macabre lasts forever, and where the waters always rise eventually to claim what is theirs. Male representatives of the constabulary, clergy and medicine are left looking in from the sidelines, confounded by Mary’s ultimate fate.


5. Grease (1978)

Also prominently featuring a drag race, Randal Kleiser’s fifties-set high-school musical is a pre-Pill exploration of teen trysts, peer identities, revved-up rites of passage and raunchy nostalgia. The two numbers that form its climax take place at a carnival celebrating the pupils’ graduation and emergence into the wider world beyond.

The scene defines carnivalesque - not only are the pupils licensed to throw cream pies at their teachers, but greaser Danny (Danny Travolta) sports the school jacket of a jock, while virginal good girl Sandy (Olivia Newton John) comes out as a smoking, leathered-up hussy, each in an attempt to win over the other. In this milieu of role reversals and costume changes, Danny and Sandy sing and dance together amid all the rides and amusements, big kids on the cusp of adult life together.

In a rundown carnival that has come to town

6. The Funhouse (1981)

In a rundown carnival that has come to town amid rumours of deaths at its previous venue, four teenagers decide to spend the night in the old ghost train known as The Funhouse. There, after witnessing a murder, they must fight to get out alive, pursued by the barker Conrad Straker (Kevin Conway) and his mutant son Gunther (Wayne Doba).

Even as the grotesque Gunther naturally blends in with his carnivalesque surroundings, he wears the mask of Frankenstein’s monster, matching the poster for Universal Pictures’ 1931 classic seen, at the beginning of the film, on the wall of the horror-obsessed younger brother of one of the soon-to-be-trapped teens. In this way, director Tobe Hooper carefully triangulates the frights of the fairground, of the then voguish slasher, and of older forms of genre cinema - all designed to offer adolescent thrills. Hooper would return to an amusement park location in his 1986 sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.


7. The Flew (2003)

The ultimate in ultra-obscure outsider cinema, this Eraserhead-riffing nightmare, shot on distressed 16mm in melancholic monochrome by Clifton Childree (who also wrote, directed, produced, edited, animated and scored) is also quite possibly the only film ever to have shown us a robotic fairground attraction’s inner life.

It concerns Otto the Beekeeper (Childree), the mechanical man in a Victorian shooting gallery who, amid the constant zinging of customers’ bullets, goes about his automated hermetic routine of visiting the (now limbless, faceless) pharmacist, looking out his window at the ’haunted beehive’, spraying invasive bees, replacing his own missing parts, and sleeping. Yet Otto also snatches furtive glimpses at the deadly old roller coaster (called ’The Wooden Embalmer’) beyond and, whether as part of a death wish or an escapist fantasy, dreams of one day taking a ride. It is a stifling tale of entrapment, hypochondria, and the unfulfillable desire to escape the confines of one’s existence.


8. Final Destination 3 (2003)

Every Final Destination film follows the same formula: an individual has a vivid premonition of a high-casualty accident, enabling him/her and a group of fellow travellers to avoid their fate, only for them all to die subsequently in freak mishaps in the order in which they would originally have been killed.

With their fatalistic high tension followed by bloody release, all these films practically define what is conventionally called a ‘rollercoaster movie’, but only James Wong’s return to the franchise literalises this metaphor, opening with an actual rollercoaster ride (on the ‘Devil’s Flight’) that ends in derailments, plummets and bone-breaking injuries. The rest of the film’s set-pieces might include a tanning salon, a takeaway drive thru, a home depot store, a renaissance fair and a subway, but the ratchets and clanks of the big dipper continue haunting the soundtrack, as death’s gravity eventually brings these co-eds down.


9. Adventureland (2009)

It’s 1987, and 22-year-old virgin James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just lost his American Dream, as the realities of Reaganomics see his father demoted and his own plans (for a Eurotrip and an Ivy League postgrad course) downsized. So James takes a low-paid job at local Pittsburgh amusement park ‘Adventureland’, and over a long summer of rigged games, dodgy rides and out-of-date corndogs, falls in love with co-worker Em (Kristen Stewart), even as she continues seeing older, married maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds) on the sly.

Drawing on his own experiences working as a student for a Long Island amusement park, writer/director Greg Mottola offers a hilariously insightful behind-the-scenes view of these institutions’ workings and non-workings, while refusing to get all rosy-eyed or yuppified in his Eighties nostalgia. Meanwhile all those rides and attractions perfectly underscore the ups and downs of his characters’ coming of age.


10. The Shock Labyrinth (2009)

Boasting J-horror’s first live-action 3D, Takashi ‘Ju-on: The Grudge’ Shimizu’s film also makes full use of the world’s largest walk-through house of horrors where it was filmed - and after which it is named - in the Fuji Q Highland theme park.

Ten years after Yuki (Misako Renbutsu) was left behind - and for dead - in a funfair’s haunted house, she returns unexpectedly to the four adults who as children had abandoned her. Unable to remember what had happened a decade earlier, these four race Yuki to a hospital after an accident, only to find themselves trapped overnight once more in a terrifying space where they are terrorised by their sense of guilt and shame. The film thrills us insistently with its endless succession of parlour tricks, chronological conundrums, deathly doppelgangers, and gaudy effects, while also painstakingly reminding us that we are, in every sense, being taken for a ride.


Anton Bitel is a freelance film critic, specialising in horror and cinema of the Far East. He blogs at projectedfigures.com