Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #7: Sideshow (2000)

Director: Fred Olen Ray

By Amy M. Vaughn

22 October 2020

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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.

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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!

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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.

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