Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to the mesmerizing world of carnival movies and circus movies! Just like the carnivals and circuses they portray, these films offer a dazzling array of spectacles, from the enchanting to the eerie, the heartwarming to the heart-stopping.
Much like the mysterious allure of a dimly lit tent in a carnival, or the anticipation as the circus master announces the next act, these films draw us into their stories with a magnetic pull.
They offer us a glimpse into the extraordinary lives of performers, the thrill of the spectacle, and the secret stories hidden beneath the glitz and glamour of the big top.
Here are 18 Best Carnival Movies & Circus Movies
1. The Greatest Showman (2017)
|Name||The Greatest Showman|
|Release Date||December 20, 2017|
|Main Cast||Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya|
|Writers||Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon|
Let’s kick off this cinematic carnival journey with the dazzling spectacle that is “The Greatest Showman”.
A true testament to the power of imagination and perseverance, this 2017 film is a razzle-dazzle musical extravaganza inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum, the visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.
Directed by Michael Gracey, and with an all-star cast led by Hugh Jackman, the film is a feast for the senses, full of colorful costumes, thrilling acrobatics, and of course, unforgettable music.
Songs like “This Is Me” and “The Greatest Show” have become anthems of self-expression and determination, capturing the essence of Barnum’s vision and the spirit of the circus.
What makes “The Greatest Showman” stand out is its ability to blend the old-world charm of the circus with contemporary storytelling and music. It’s a film that carries the carnival spirit in its heart – a celebration of diversity, audacity, and the magic of showbiz.
2. Victor Frankenstein (2015)
|Genre||Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller|
|Release Date||November 25, 2015|
|Main Cast||Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay|
|Writers||Max Landis, Mary Shelley (novel)|
Now, for a slightly different take on the carnival theme, we turn to the dark and stormy world of “Victor Frankenstein”.
This 2015 film, directed by Paul McGuigan, is a fresh take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel, with the titular character portrayed by James McAvoy and his loyal assistant Igor played by Daniel Radcliffe.
The carnival connection here is subtle but crucial. Igor, in this version of the story, is a former circus clown, whose knowledge of human anatomy – gleaned from years of patching up injured performers – catches the eye of the ambitious medical student Victor Frankenstein.
This strange partnership born under the big top leads to the infamous experiment that brings a horrifying creature to life.
Through its use of the circus backdrop, “Victor Frankenstein” delves into themes of monstrosity and humanity, standing alongside other thought-provoking carnival movies
3. Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962)
|Name||Billy Rose’s Jumbo|
|Genre||Comedy, Musical, Romance|
|Release Date||December 6, 1962|
|Main Cast||Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Jimmy Durante, Martha Raye|
|Writers||Sidney Sheldon (screenplay), Ben Hecht (adaptation)|
Stepping back in time, we arrive at the 1962 film “Billy Rose’s Jumbo,” a delightful musical comedy that beautifully captures the spirit and magic of the classic American circus, making it a gem among beloved carnival movies.
Directed by Charles Walters and starring the inimitable Doris Day and Jimmy Durante, the film is set in the struggling circus run by the Wonder family.
Based on a Broadway musical, the film is packed with slapstick humor, charming performances, and catchy tunes. Doris Day, as the daredevil horseback rider, delivers one of her most memorable performances.
But it’s Durante who steals the show, especially in the famous scene where he tries to nonchalantly walk a circus elephant out of the tent, uttering the iconic line, “What elephant?”
“Billy Rose’s Jumbo” is a nostalgic journey back to the golden age of the traveling circus. It’s a sweet, feel-good movie that showcases the sense of camaraderie, the thrill of the performance, and the sheer joy of the carnival. This one is a must-watch for lovers of classic cinema and the old-world charm of the circus.
4. Freaks (1932)
|Release Date||February 20, 1932|
|Main Cast||Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova|
|Writers||Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins (suggested by story “Spurs”), Willis Goldbeck (screenplay)|
Taking a haunting detour into the enigmatic realm of carnival movies, we encounter Tod Browning’s legendary masterpiece, “Freaks,” released in 1932.
This pre-code horror film is a significant departure from the glitz and glamour we typically associate with the carnival. Its portrayal of circus performers was groundbreaking, if controversial, for the time.
“Freaks” presents a carnival sideshow where the performers, many of whom were real-life people with physical anomalies, are not the villains but the heroes of the story.
The true monsters are revealed to be the so-called “normal” characters who seek to exploit them. This film is a potent critique of societal norms and prejudices, using the circus as a mirror to reflect on our own fears and biases.
While “Freaks” might not be for everyone, it’s an important piece of cinema history that challenges our perceptions and invites us to empathize with those on the fringes of society.
5. The Circus (1928)
|Release Date||January 6, 1928|
|Main Cast||Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia|
Next up, we step into the silent film era with the incomparable Charlie Chaplin in “The Circus” from 1928. Chaplin, in his iconic role as The Tramp, stumbles into a circus and, through a series of hilarious mishaps, becomes the star of the show.
This film is quintessential Chaplin – full of physical comedy, social satire, and unexpected moments of pathos. It’s a testament to Chaplin’s genius that he can make us laugh uproariously one minute and tug at our heartstrings the next.
“The Circus” is a celebration of the chaos, laughter, and unexpected beauty of life under the big top. It’s a testament to the enduring power of silent cinema and Chaplin’s unparalleled comic genius. For fans of classic cinema, this is a must-see.
6. Dumbo (1941)
|Genre||Animation, Adventure, Drama|
|Release Date||October 23, 1941|
|Directors||Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen, John Elliotte|
|Main Cast||Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, James Baskett|
|Writers||Helen Aberson (novel), Harold Pearl (novel), Joe Grant (story direction), Dick Huemer (story direction)|
Now, let’s lighten the mood with the endearing tale of the little elephant that could in Disney’s “Dumbo” from 1941. This animated classic tugs at the heartstrings with its story of a young circus elephant ridiculed for his oversized ears but who discovers he can use them to fly.
“Dumbo” is a timeless tale of embracing one’s uniqueness and turning perceived flaws into strengths. The film beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the circus, with its colourful cast of characters and the theme of overcoming adversity to entertain and inspire.
Whether you’re introducing your kids to the magic of the circus or reliving your own childhood memories, “Dumbo” is a charming, whimsical ride you won’t want to miss.
7. Water for Elephants (2011)
|Name||Water for Elephants|
|Release Date||April 22, 2011|
|Main Cast||Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz|
|Writers||Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel)|
Finally, we arrive at “Water for Elephants,” a captivating 2011 film that seamlessly weaves the enchanting tapestry of carnival movies into a romantic drama.
Based on the bestselling novel by Sara Gruen and helmed by director Francis Lawrence, this cinematic gem stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, unfolding a tale of love amidst the hardships of the Great Depression within the vibrant setting of a traveling circus.
The film tells the story of Jacob, a veterinary student who abandons his studies after a family tragedy and joins a circus as their vet. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the beautiful star performer, setting the stage for a forbidden romance.
“Water for Elephants” beautifully captures the glamour and grit of the circus life, with stunning cinematography and period costumes. It’s a heartfelt story of love, loss, and redemption, set in a world where magic and reality collide under the big top.
8. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
|Name||The Greatest Show on Earth|
|Genre||Drama, Family, Romance|
|Release Date||January 10, 1952|
|Director||Cecil B. DeMille|
|Main Cast||James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton|
|Writers||Fredric M. Frank, Barré Lyndon, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, Cecil B. DeMille|
Next on our list is Cecil B. DeMille’s grand spectacle, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. This 1952 film is a love letter to the circus, showing both the dazzling performances under the big top and the drama that unfolds behind the scenes.
Starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Charlton Heston, the film takes us into the heart of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It’s an epic tale of love triangles, daring stunts, and life-or-death decisions, all set against the backdrop of one of the most famous circuses in history.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, “The Greatest Show on Earth” offers a captivating look at the golden age of the American circus. It’s an iconic piece of cinema that’s a must-watch for any circus or film history enthusiast.
9. Nightmare Alley (2021)
|Genre||Crime, Drama, Thriller|
|Release Date||December 17, 2021|
|Director||Guillermo del Toro|
|Main Cast||Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette|
|Writers||Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), Kim Morgan (screenplay), William Lindsay Gresham (novel)|
Moving on to a more recent release, “Nightmare Alley” is a 2021 noir psychological thriller directed by Guillermo del Toro. Based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, the film offers a dark and gritty depiction of carnival life.
The story follows a drifter who becomes a carnival worker, then a mentalist, using his skills to manipulate people to his advantage. As he gets deeper into the con game, his ambitions lead him down a dangerous path.
“Nightmare Alley” is a compelling exploration of the darker side of human nature, using the carnival as a metaphor for deception and illusion. With del Toro’s signature visual style and a stellar cast, this film is a thrilling ride that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
10. The Elephant Man (1980)
|Name||The Elephant Man|
|Release Date||October 10, 1980|
|Main Cast||Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft|
|Writers||Christopher De Vore (screenplay), Eric Bergren (screenplay), David Lynch (screenplay), Frederick Treves (book), Ashley Montagu (in part on the book ‘The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity’)|
Next up is David Lynch’s poignant “The Elephant Man” from 1980, based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a man with severe physical deformities who was exhibited as a sideshow attraction.
John Hurt gives a powerful performance as Merrick, portraying his dignity and humanity amidst the cruelty and exploitation he experiences. Anthony Hopkins also delivers a strong performance as the doctor who takes Merrick under his care.
“The Elephant Man” is a deeply moving film that shines a light on the darker side of the Victorian freak show culture while reminding us of our shared humanity. It’s a cinematic masterpiece that’s both heartbreaking and inspiring.
11. Arabian Nights (1942)
|Genre||Action, Adventure, Fantasy|
|Release Date||December 25, 1942|
|Main Cast||Jon Hall, Maria Montez, Sabu|
|Writers||Michael Hogan (original screenplay), True Boardman (additional dialogue)|
Next on this captivating list is the mesmerizing 1942 film “Arabian Nights,” an opulent Technicolor extravaganza that effortlessly embraces the essence of carnival movies, despite not being categorized as a strictly circus-themed film.
It seamlessly captures the allure of exoticism and spectacle, evoking the enchanting atmosphere often associated with the grandeur of the carnival.
Directed by John Rawlins, the film is a loose adaptation of the classic tales of “One Thousand and One Nights”. It’s a colorful fantasy filled with magic carpets, scheming viziers, daring heroics, and of course, the enchanting Scheherazade.
“Arabian Nights” is a delightful escape into a world of magic and adventure. Its spirit of wonder and imagination aligns with the best circus films, making it a fitting inclusion on this list.
12. Big Top Pee-Wee (1988)
|Name||Big Top Pee-Wee|
|Genre||Adventure, Comedy, Family|
|Release Date||July 22, 1988|
|Main Cast||Paul Reubens, Penelope Ann Miller, Kris Kristofferson|
|Writers||Paul Reubens, George McGrath|
Let’s dive back into the whimsical side of the circus with “Big Top Pee-Wee” from 1988. This sequel to the cult hit “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” features the return of Paul Reubens as the childlike Pee-Wee Herman, who finds himself caught up in the life of a traveling circus that lands on his farm.
While it’s a departure from the original film’s road trip narrative, “Big Top Pee-Wee” embraces the zany, colorful energy of the circus, complete with eccentric performers, talking pigs, and Pee-Wee’s unique brand of comedy. It’s a delightful romp that reminds us of the childlike wonder and joy that the circus can inspire.
13. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
|Name||Oz the Great and Powerful|
|Genre||Adventure, Family, Fantasy|
|Release Date||March 8, 2013|
|Main Cast||James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz|
|Writers||Mitchell Kapner (screenplay), David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), Mitchell Kapner (screen story), L. Frank Baum (“Oz” works)|
Next on our mesmerizing journey through carnival movies is the enchanting “Oz the Great and Powerful” from 2013.
Directed by Sam Raimi and starring James Franco as the titular Oz, the film is a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz”, telling the story of how a small-time circus magician becomes the legendary Wizard.
The film beautifully captures the spectacle and wonder of the circus, as well as the power of illusion and imagination. With its stunning visuals and heartwarming story, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a magical journey that harkens back to the golden age of cinema.
14. The Funhouse (1981)
|Release Date||March 13, 1981|
|Main Cast||Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Jeanne Austin|
Now, let’s take a thrilling detour into the realm of horror with “The Funhouse” from 1981, a gripping entry among classic carnival movies.
Directed by Tobe Hooper, the mastermind behind “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, this film takes us into a carnival funhouse where a group of teenagers are stalked by a deformed carnival worker.
While it might not be your typical circus movie, “The Funhouse” uses the carnival setting to create a sense of unease and terror. It’s a chilling exploration of the darker side of the carnival, where the funhouse becomes a house of horrors.
15. House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
|Name||House of 1000 Corpses|
|Release Date||April 11, 2003|
|Main Cast||Sid Haig, Karen Black, Bill Moseley|
Venturing further into the macabre, we come across “House of 1000 Corpses,” a 2003 horror film written and directed by Rob Zombie that delves deep into the unsettling realm of carnival movies.
It’s an unsettling journey into the grotesque, inspired by 1970s horror films, and showcasing Zombie’s unique blend of horror and rock-and-roll aesthetics.
The film follows a group of unsuspecting travelers who, after stopping by a bizarre roadside museum of monsters and madmen, fall victim to a family of psychopathic killers.
While it might not be a traditional circus film, the movie’s atmosphere, filled with carnivalesque grotesquerie, aligns it with the freakish aspects of carnival culture.
“House of 1000 Corpses” is not for the faint of heart. It’s a wild, gruesome ride that uses elements of the carnival – the sideshow attractions, the funhouse horrors – to amplify its own brand of terror. Zombie’s film is an unsettling exploration of the American underbelly, where the carnivalesque turns into the nightmarish.
As always, viewer discretion is advised. But for those who appreciate the darker side of the carnival world, “House of 1000 Corpses” is a twisted exploration of horror that’s worth the watch.
16. Hell Fest (2018)
|Release Date||September 28, 2018|
|Main Cast||Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus|
|Writers||Seth M. Sherwood (screenplay by), Blair Butler (screenplay by), William Penick (story by), Christopher Sey (story by), Stephen Susco (story by), Akela Cooper (screenplay by)|
Starting with a more recent addition to the horror genre, “Hell Fest” from 2018 is a heart-pounding thrill ride set in a horror-themed amusement park that immerses viewers in a chilling world reminiscent of carnival movies.
Directed by Gregory Plotkin, the film follows a group of friends who visit the eponymous “Hell Fest”, only to discover that a masked serial killer is among the crowd.
Using the setting of a Halloween carnival, the film blends the thrill of roller coasters and haunted house attractions with the fear and suspense of a slasher flick.
While it may not be a traditional circus or carnival film, “Hell Fest” captures the adrenaline-fueled excitement and lurking danger that can be part of such events. It’s a must-watch for horror fans seeking a carnival-themed scare.
17. Santa Sangre (1989)
|Genre||Drama, Fantasy, Horror|
|Release Date||January 31, 1990 (U.S. release)|
|Main Cast||Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell|
|Writers||Alejandro Jodorowsky (story & screenplay), Roberto Leoni (story & screenplay), Claudio Argento (story & screenplay)|
Next, we delve into the surreal with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre” from 1989. Known for his avant-garde style, Jodorowsky uses the backdrop of a circus to weave a tale that is both bizarre and hauntingly beautiful.
“Santa Sangre” follows the story of Fenix, a former circus performer, and his relationship with his armless mother. The film is filled with striking imagery and surreal sequences, making it a true visual feast. It’s a deep dive into the realm of psychological horror, told through the lens of a circus gone wrong.
18. Carnival of Souls (1962)
|Name||Carnival of Souls|
|Release Date||November 12, 1962|
|Main Cast||Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger|
Last but not least is the cult classic “Carnival of Souls” from 1962. Directed by Herk Harvey, this low-budget horror film has gained a cult following for its eerie atmosphere and haunting story.
The film follows a young woman who, after surviving a car accident, is drawn to a mysterious abandoned carnival. With its ethereal organ score and dreamlike visuals, “Carnival of Souls” is a chilling exploration of the line between the living and the dead.
Though not a traditional circus movie, the film’s use of the abandoned carnival as a symbol of the protagonist’s disconnection from the world adds a layer of unsettling surrealism that’s hard to shake.
And there you have it! We’ve taken a journey around the cinematic big top, diving into the rich, varied, and often surprising world of carnival movies and circus movies.
From heartwarming tales of ambition and success to thrilling horror flicks and surreal explorations of the human mind, these films provide a wide array of narratives that capture the essence of the carnival and circus experience.
So, the next time you’re in the mood for a film that’s a little out of the ordinary, why not dive into one of these remarkable carnival or circus movies?
You might find yourself enchanted by the magic, thrilled by the spectacle, or even drawn into a world of suspense and horror. But one thing is for sure — you’ll never look at a carnival or circus the same way again.