Thursday, September 10, 2009

This Is a Dark Ride

As we pack away the bermuda shorts and citronella candles to welcome crispy autumn, there’s one summer institution that I’ll be slightly sad to watch hibernate: amusement parks. Sure, lucky Californians and other citizens get yearlong access to large scale outdoor playgrounds, but for those of us that must abide by Mother Nature’s mood swings, a mobile carnival that sets up in a supermarket parking lot is a temporary joy. 

Thankfully, like so many venues of our dimension, there are plenty of horror films that help to keep alive (and sometimes, undead) the memories of rickety ferris wheels, questionable carnies, and possessed bumper cars (that’s what Herbie: Fully Loadedwas about, yes?).

If you’ve seen the trailer for Zombieland (and let’s face it: if you’ve been anywhere near a movie theater or Internet connection, you’ve seen the trailer for Zombieland)then like me, you’re itching for the promising marriage of roller coasters  and cannibalism. For a brainy appetizer, check out Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City. While it doesn’t answer the question of whether zombies throw their arms in the air when descending down a big drop or if they take a good picture via those seizure-inducing photo flashes, this 1980 classic does does provide a nifty chase up my favorite staple of vintage theme parks, a wooden roller coaster (and by chase, I mean actual chase; these roasted marshmallow headed ghouls can run). A truly horrifying ending demonstrates what happens should the teenage ride operator not check your safety harness (20+ years before Final Destination 3 gave us grisly details. 

Roller coasters not your thing? There’s still plenty of rides that can instill insane levels of fear in under 2 minutes. Child’s Play 3 boasts one  of those unrealistically extravagant funhouses only seen in cinema. Motorized cars take you on a herky jerky spin through a maze of foamy gargoyles. The ride itself is hardly terrifying, but its physical setup--which includes 20 foot drops over mini-van sized fans--makes for the perfect grounds for soul possessing and doll hunting. Pity the poor maintenance man who has to patrol that death trap.

Appropriately enough, a more believable funhouse can be found in a film I’ve discussed here before, Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. This 1981 slasher is set in a weekend carnival overflowing with stale popcorn and ex-cons (the type of three day event my lax fire department sponsored every August). Best of all, its titular attraction is perfectly decrepit and looks like it’s already hosted the deaths of countless ticket holders, much less the naughty teens whose demise will follow.

Maybe you prefer stationary entertainment at your evening fair. Many a carnival goer enjoys some of the live shows offered, although unless your ticket says Disney or Dollywood, the odds are fairly high that you won’t be clamoring for autographs at the end of the show. Still, give Tod Browning some credit for amassing a real-life collection of sideshow workers in 1932’s Freaks. From giggly pinheads to limbless crawlers, this group doesn’t seem to rival Cirque de Soleil, but damnit if they don’t throw kickass parties. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that their boss gives them enough time off to occasionally deform anyone who disrespects one of their own. An alternative black-and-white after hours entertainment can be found in the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where a somnobulist brings the house down by predicting the date of your death. Fun for the whole family!

For less authentic performers, visit Victor Salva’s Clownhouse, where a trio of mental patients escape the big house to kill and impersonate three bitter circus clowns. Sure, the whole chasing-three-teenagers-and-trying-to-kill-them thing is wrong, but what’s even worse is the actual clowns’ performance ettiquette. Dancing around like--well, clowns--they please the local kids fine enough, but why when it comes to choosing a volunteer, why does Cheezo the leader grab our young protagonist against his will? If a boy stares into your painted eyes with a look of true terror, shaking his head at your extended gloved hand, is it really wise to grab his clammy right and throw him in the center ring? You’re just asking for a kick in the nuts. The strangulation and identity theft? Not completely undeserved. 

Speaking of clowns, one can’t discuss theme parks without a wistful visit to Killer Klowns From Outer Space. A neon tent rivals Las Vegas’ Circus Circus and a drop down ball pit lands you in the Playboy Bunny mansion of rainbow headed jesterettes. Best of all is the prime selection of artery clogging food. I’ve seen my share of candy apples and fried oreos, but that’s nothing compared to the klowns’ selection of 4’ long blood-stuffed cotton candy, monster-making popcorn, and acidic cream pies that will melt even the surliest of night security guards.

Finally, to bid proper adieu to summer days and snow cones, stop by the hauntingly barren landscape of rigged games, flea ridden stuffed animals, and loose screwed rides in 28 Weeks Later. Sure, Carnival of Souls gets plenty of ghostly points for its artistic eeriness, but there’s something sad and understated about a carousel so clean of children’s laughter and motion sickness vomit. 

Have I missed any? Throw in your vote for best use of a tilt-a-whirl, haunted house, deep fryer, or any other treat found only inside those non-permanent gates of traveling fun.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful little bit of "Killer Klowns" to brighten the day. And I, too, and excited about the recent blast of cooler weather...yay fall!

  2. My pleasure TF. I've declared that the end of Labor Day is to Halloween what Black Friday is to Christmas, so that makes every day of crispy cool that much more exciting!