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.

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