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Who’s afraid of carnivals?

I find amusement parks disturbing; the grinning clown faces, the creepy organ music, the suspicion that the games are rigged.

I find amusement parks disturbing; the grinning clown faces, the creepy organ music, the suspicion that the games are rigged.

I always feel like their bright sunny facades are hiding dark secrets. In this weekend’s Adventureland, a new coming-of-age comedy set at a seedy carnival, rancid corndogs and fixed games are the extent of the ominous goings-on but despite the movie’s tame portrayal of carnival life I can’t shake my (possibly irrational) fear of fun fairs.

Apparently I’m not alone.

Filmmakers have set hundreds of stories on fairgrounds and usually somebody is up to no good, but often the action is a little more extreme than cheating at a ring toss.

An all-star cast, including Henry Fonda and George Segal, headlines 1977’s Rollercoaster, a compact thriller about a terrorist who is blowing up rollercoasters at amusement parks all over the country. The film is most memorable for its use of the Sensurround process — speakers were placed around the theatre to make your seat shake as the rollercoaster blasted by.

In Westworld, amusement of a different kind can be found at Delos, an adult amusement park split into three sections, Medieval World, Roman World and Westworld, a cowboy themed funland where rich tourists pay $1,000 a day to interact with robots. In this western setting paying customers can do whatever they like to the robots — befriend them or kill them — and all goes well until a computer glitch allows the automatons to fight back. No one is laughing at this amusement park. Directed by Michael Crichton, he riffed on this idea twenty years later, replacing the robots with dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park.

Two other movies represent the extremes of amusement park movies. In the campy Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, the painted rock band must thwart an evil scientist who is cloning humans in his laboratory, hidden deep inside the bowels of an amusement park.

On the other hand Carny, the 1980 Gary Busey film, is so realistic in its look at life on the fair grounds you can almost smell Bozo the Clown’s greasepaint.

The king of carnival movies, however, is Freaks, a 1932 oddity deemed so disturbing one critic suggested it was only for the “morbidly curious and the psychically sick.” The film’s production manager said most of the preview screening’s audience ran out of the theatre.

“They didn’t walk out,” he said, “they ran out.” What kind of movie could draw this kind of fire from critics and audiences? How about a melodrama that featured real, honest to goodness sideshow performers who unleash a sadistic and nightmarish fury on a pair of circus entertainers who betrayed them?

Bombs! Gun slinging robots! Vengeful sideshow acts!

Think about that on your next trip to the amusement park.

Richard Crouse’s Movie Show can be seen every Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on the E! Channel; mrchaos33@hotmail.com.

 
 
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