Carnivals were a big thing back in the day—and probably creepier than they are now. They (controversially) allowed the public to witness all kinds of wild creatures and acrobatic performances, often at the expense of real, disabled workers with nowhere else to go.
These days, carnivals are more a place of fun than derogatory freakshow and animal abuse. Rides, games, food stalls, and toy prizes make it a treat for the whole family when the circus rolls into town.
Here are my picks for the best circus movies and carnival movies worth watching, whether you enjoyed the Freakshow season of American Horror Story or loved Tim Burton's family-friendly Dumbo remake.
16. The Funhouse (1981)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, William Finley
Horror (1h 36m)
The blood-splattered movie poster for The Funhouse is a huge giveaway that this movie is actually no fun at all. Funhouses are known for being ironically unsettling, as visitors are met with a kaleidoscope of warped, disorientating mirrors.
In movies, funhouses are generally used to convey confusion or distortion of truths. (Think of the mirror scenes from Elvis, Us, and The Lady From Shanghai.) But in The Funhouse, it's not just one scene that's crookedly reflected back to us—it's the whole movie.
If you like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, be sure to check out this lesser-known but similarly-styled slasher from the same writer. In that classic 80s way, a group of teenagers are victim to an unhinged carnie while trapped inside a sleazy circus horror ride.
15. Toy Story 4 (2019)
Directed by Josh Cooley
Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 40m)
Pixar has done toy stores, garage sales, birthday parties, kindergarten, and Pizza Planet. What other setting could Pixar use to ensure lots of interesting toy characters? The circus, of course!
Before arriving at a colorful carnival, Woody finds himself in an antique store with creepy vintage toys. Meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear is mistaken for a prize toy and befriending Key & Peele plush teddies. All this—and more—awaits in Toy Story 4.
Most film franchises tend to feel fairly stale by their fourth installments, but Toy Story 4 maintains the spirit of the original while closing on a perfectly bittersweet finale.
14. Victor Frankenstein (2015)
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 50m)
Although this film only partially takes place at a circus, it does play an integral role in the character of Igor as it perfectly captures the eerie atmosphere of the Victorian London circus scene.
Paul McGuigan puts his own spin on the classic Mary Shelley tale, proposing that the famous stock character Igor Straussman began life as an enslaved hunchback.
Zany medical student Victor Frankenstein (played by James McAvoy) saves Igor (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and takes him under his wing to construct an artificially humanoid being. You know the rest...
13. The Greatest Showman (2017)
Directed by Michael Gracey
Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron
Biography, Drama, Musical (1h 45m)
If you're going to watch this movie with kids, prepare to hear them repeat the lyrics "This is the greatest show!" for several months. Luckily, The Greatest Showman is enjoyable for adults, too.
For anyone who's a fan of musicals or theater, Michael Gracey's whimsical directorial debut is the perfect feel-good watch.
Gracey takes the true story of P. T. Barnum's rise to fame (as founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus) and injects it with all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya.
12. Arabian Nights (1942)
Directed by John Rawlins
Starring Jon Hall, Maria Montez, Sabu
Action, Adventure, Comedy (1h 26m)
One Thousand and One Nights is the collective title for Middle Eastern tales from the Islamic Golden Age, but it's also called Arabian Nights.
Home to the original stories behind Aladdin and Ali Baba, Arabian Nights was written across many centuries. This movie, however, mostly comes from the film studio rather than folklore itself.
Universal Pictures released a burst of "exotic" movies during World War II, including this adventure flick by John Rawlins. It follows a circus dancer (a colleague to Aladdin) who comes between two brothers as they fight over their throne.
Arabian Nights gives us a different kind of circus, showing us what they would have looked like during the Sasanian Empire (or thereabouts—the film is somewhat vague on that point).
11. Pinocchio (1940)
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske
Starring Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 28m)
Pleasure Island in 1940's Pinocchio is a carnival/theme park crossover, originally called Land of Toys in Carlo Collodi's classic kids fantasy The Adventures of Pinocchio.
This island is actually just a trick to teach Pinocchio (and young viewers) a rather harsh lesson: if you misbehave, you'll be turned into a donkey and sold into slavery.
The scene where a boy is cursed into a donkey while crying out for his mother? Yeah, a bit disturbing... But if Pinocchio can get out of this hellish circus, he might finally live a cozy life as a real boy.
10. Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962)
Directed by Charles Walters
Starring Doris Day, Jimmy Durante, Stephen Boyd
Comedy, Musical, Romance (2h 3m)
Charles Walters gives us a fun-filled musical with a cinematic 60s makeover, starring Hollywood sweetheart Doris Day.
When The Wonder Circus hitches into town, families simply fall in love with Jumbo... But will that be enough to haul the ailing business out of its gambling debts?
Not to be confused with the big-eared Disney cartoon Dumbo (which we include later on this list), Jumbo was a real-life African bush elephant bought by P. T. Barnum in 1882 despite public protest.
History lessons aside, this movie takes inspiration from that very same 19th century elephant, who appeared in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1935 Broadway play.
9. Wings of Desire (1987)
Directed by Wim Winders
Starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander
Drama, Fantasy, Romance (2h 8m)
Have you ever stopped to consider that guardian angels might get lonely, too? Well, that's what Wings of Desire is all about. This melancholy, poetic classic—shot in black-and-white—is a meditation on love, disconnect, and spirituality.
Immortal angels exist around the city of Berlin, but they're on a different spiritual plane so humans can't see them. Their job is to comfort and protect the city's inhabitants, but most of the thoughts they hear are downright depressing.
When Damiel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist, he doesn't know how to help her when the circus shuts down and she loses her job. If only he could reach out and touch her...
8. Freaks (1932)
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova
Drama, Horror (1h 4m)
A controversial black-and-white film classic, you'll have to take Freaks with a pinch of salt. The pre-Code horror film, directed by Tod Browning, follows a trapeze artist's twisted intentions to marry a sideshow performer purely for his inheritance.
Although the film itself is brilliantly made—preserved by the United States National Film Registry for its cultural significance—theorists are still exploring its anti-eugenics message.
MGM's use of disabled actors and real-life circus "freaks" raised some ethical questions, especially given their alleged treatment on set.
7. The Circus (1928)
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia
Comedy, Family, Romance (1h 12m)
On the heels of the Golden Age of the Circus came newfangled movies, which swiftly replaced them as the newest in the show-biz industry.
Captain of this new industry was Charlie Chaplin: actor, comedian, and director. Charlie Chaplin created the Tramp caricature and blundered his way through many silent comedies, one of which takes place at a struggling carnival.
Despite it being the most difficult production of Chaplin's career—littered by death, divorce, and delays—it still manages to sparkle with humor. When the Tramp accidentally stumbles into the middle of a circus performance, he unexpectedly becomes the star of the show.
6. Dumbo (1941)
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Starring Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, Herman Bing
Animation, Adventure, Drama (1h 4m)
Though recently reimagined by Tim Burton, we're sticking to the original Disney classic for this list. The fourth-ever animated film by Walt Disney, Dumbo follows a sweet little elephant whose huge ears enable him to fly.
Partially based on the real elephant mentioned earlier on this list, Jumbo Jr. is mocked for his clumsiness with the nickname "Dumbo."
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen, the script was sourced from a story written for a prototype toy by Helen Aberson.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this cartoon was made in the 1960s—what with its trippy psychedelic sequence—but really it's a stunning example of 1940s hand-drawn animation.
5. Water for Elephants (2011)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Drama, Romance (2h)
Circuses sure love elephants, don't they? And we get it—they're cute. Though perhaps those elephants would prefer to stay in the wild rather than be beaten with bull hooks.
When Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson) joins a traveling circus as a veterinarian, he's disgusted by the way ringmaster August treats his animals and peers. August isn't the type of guy you want to get on the wrong side of, so having an affair with his wife isn't the best idea.
Adapted from Sara Gruen's 2006 novel and directed by Francis Lawrence, Water for Elephants will whisk you away in romance and horror. Christoph Waltz has a knack for playing villains, and he knocks it out of the park as the cruel ringmaster August.
4. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 7m)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the perfect watch for any film student (or even just an enthusiast) who's looking to expand their cultural and historical knowledge. Plus, it's only an hour long!
The German Expressionist movement was a landmark movement in cinematic history that's just as important to study as the French New Wave and Italian neorealism.
The whole aesthetic is championed by angular set designs, chiaroscuro lighting, and a general nightmarish feel.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is arguably the first real horror film ever made. Directed by Robert Wiene, it follows a murderous hypnotist who works at a circus. It was inspired by a real sideshow that writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz saw in Berlin, circa 1918.
3. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton
Drama, Family, Romance (2h 32m)
While it's far from the greatest movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Greatest Show on Earth is still an amusing watch. It's also what inspired Steven Spielberg to start making films as a kid, as he depicts in The Fabelmans.
Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille in vibrant Technicolor, The Greatest Show on Earth features real performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Now we know where The Greatest Showman got its title from!
A bunch of old Hollywood starlets appear in this film, including Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart. Bursting with laugh, thrills, and fun, DeMille instills The Greatest Show on Earth with the energy of a real carnival.
2. Nightmare Alley (2021)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 30m)
Auteur director Guillermo del Toro is known for his unsettling stories that feature elements of the supernatural and carefully selected color palettes. Nightmare Alley is no exception, which brings us a brilliant neo-noir-infused psychological drama.
The second movie adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as a mysterious carny who learns the art of clairvoyance.
A moral fable full of plot twists, Nightmare Alley will have you questioning everyone and everything as it exposes dark side of 20th century circuses. Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara also star.
1. The Elephant Man (1980)
Directed by David Lynch
Starring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Biography, Drama (2h 4m)
The tragic true story of Joseph Merrick begins at a Victorian freakshow, where the cruelly nicknamed "Elephant Man" was put on display in London's East End.
Viewed as lesser by his taunting ringmaster due to his disabilities, he's kept under a hood and laughed at by the public.
Surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) stumbles upon the freakshow, then treats and befriends Joseph (John Hurt).
David Lynch's historical drama was an instant success, shot in black-and-white for that extra vintage feeling. It even led to the Academy Awards creating a whole new category dedicated to hair and makeup!