Last night, the fourth season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, premiered on the FX Network. While the last three years have been wildly uneven in terms of plotting, character development, and storytelling, AHS has been consistent in one specific area: tremendously impressive casting. Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates join the recurring cast, along with the majestic Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Paulson, and Francis Conroy. And on top of that stellar list, Michael Chiklis, Patti LaBelle, and Wes Bentley will play recurring characters.
Set in the ’50s, the show will follow the lives of performers in one of the few remaining “freak shows”existing in the United States. The premise is iffy, at best, given the show’s heavy handed and exploitative tendencies, and I expect to see a lot of ink over Freak Show‘s handling of its subject matter during the next couple of months. We’ll have a look at the first episode tomorrow.
The carnival and its accompanying side show have been fertile ground for the horror genre for decades, stretching all the way back to 1920’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While you’re waiting for this season of AHS to unspool, check out these other thematic offerings:
Something Wicked This Way Comes – 1983
There was a time when Disney made some genuinely creepy movies — Something Wicked, The Dark Crystal, and Watcher in the Woods are some seriously dark kids films. Based on Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, two young boys face off against Mr. Dark and his Pandemonium Carnival after he sets up camp in their town one October day.
Berserk – 1968
While not particularly scary by any stretch of the imagination, Berserk is worth checking out solely for Joan Crawford’s hammy performance at a circus owner and ring master. She gets to strut around in saucy fishnets, romances a guy at least 20 years her junior, and is at the center of a circus based murder mystery.
Bonus: This is going to be your Halloween costume this year:
Sante Sangre – 1989
Of all the films on this list, Sante Sangre is the most challenging and most disturbing. The plot centers around a trapeze artist, Concha, whose arms are cut off by her philandering husband. Her son Fenix becomes her arms, literally, in a joint circus act, where he hides behind her to make it appear as if her arms are moving. As things go in this genre, the relationship between mother and son gets a bit … complicated.
Viewers sensitive to gore and violence are advised away from this one.
Freaks – 1932
Another classic of horror cinema, Todd Browning — the director of Dracula — produced and directed this film about the inner workings of a carnival and its sideshow. Even upon its debut in 1932, Freaks was controversial because of Browning’s choice to use actual sideshow performers in the cast. Himself a former circus contortionist, Browning’s script is sympathetic and kind towards the performers, while most of its criticism is aimed at the traditionally beautiful and able bodied Cleopatra and Hercules, the show’s trapeze artist and strong man, respectively. When Cleopatra finds out that the sideshow midget, Hans, is secretly wealthy, she hatches a plan with her lover Hercules to marry Hans and steal his fortune. Things do not go as planned.