Herk Harvey's influential Carnival of Souls, released in 1962, set the tone for the amusement park horror movie genre.EXPAND
Herk Harvey's influential Carnival of Souls, released in 1962, set the tone for the amusement park horror movie genre.
Harcourt Productions/Criterion Collection

Visit a Creepy Amusement Park (on Film) for Fourth of July Weekend

That post-grunge year of 1993 was one of the biggest of director Steven Spielberg’s already big career; his Schindler’s List deservedly filled a trophy case with nifty statues, while Jurassic Park was a monster money-maker, showcasing the most cutting-edge CGI effects of the time, with a simple plot about dinosaur DNA and an always-understaffed amusement park. While Schindler’s List probably will remain the standard-bearer of Holocaust dramas, Jurassic Park has been tinkered with, prodded and poked, as it’s continued to be sequel-ized, rebooted, Lego-ized and more or less remade, with a fifth entry, the just-released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, filling up more Brinks trucks.

The original was based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, whose own career is rather Spielbergian. The guy could easily fill a video store section worth of pop hit movies either written by him or based on his books (as well as his TV show ER and directorial efforts). Another notch in his belt, HBO’s latest buzzworthy, sexy sci-fi show Westworld (which just ended its second season), is also from the mind of Crichton; he wrote and directed the 1973 film version, which may be best remembered as the film in which the bald and mostly silent, broken robot played by Yul Brynner chased Richard Benjamin and his ’70s porn stashe around a failing amusement park. (If you’re a tourist, Westworld is kinda like Jurassic Park, except that in Westworld you’re encouraged to have sex with and kill the creatures.) Those are two of the biggest amusement park movies of all time.

Johnny Knoxville also recently had a blink-or-you-missed it Jackass-ed-flick released called Action Point, based on a real-life crap park in New Jersey. And classics including The Lady From Shanghai, The Third Man, Strangers on a Train, National Lampoon’s Vacation and True Romance have key scenes at a ride park.

Amusement park horror movies, an underappreciated genre, are starting to come out of the shadows. So let’s have a look-see at some scary amusement park movie alternatives to Jurassic World for the Fourth of July holiday.

Model-turned-actress Candace Hilligoss plays a freaked-out beauty trapped in an after-life nightmare in Carnival of Souls.
Model-turned-actress Candace Hilligoss plays a freaked-out beauty trapped in an after-life nightmare in Carnival of Souls.
Harcourt Productions/Criterion Collection

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

This shoestring-budget film out of Lawrence, Kansas, is the first and most important on the list. Its influence is still felt, as are its legitimate chills (most movies with shadowy ashen ghoul faces seem to take a cue from it). Ignored in its day, it gained a cult following with late-night TV viewings and on the ’70s college midnight circuit; later a souped-up DVD release by Criterion sent it into the respectable stratosphere.

A former model, Candace Hilligoss gives a rather extraordinary performance as Mary Henry (and she has only one other feature film credit, something called The Course of the Living Corpse, which I suppose is still waiting for its Criterion Collection comeback). The film opens with Mary and some pals getting into a drag race in which their car ends up at the bottom of the river. Mary appears to be the only one who manages to drag herself out of the water, and so begins a nightmarish journey, complete with creepy organ music by Gene Moore (sadly his only feature credit), lots of night driving, lurking men, an abandoned carnival and the iconic white-faced ghoul with bad hair played by director Herk Harvey (in his only film credit). Do spoilers exist on a film this old (and in the public domain, to boot)? If you haven’t guessed, Mary is dead and the carnival is heaven or hell or some kind of weird afterlife. It’s a slow burn, but you can see the influences, most obviously a few years later in George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, as well as the Italian horror flicks of Mario Bava and Dario Argento and even David Lynch’s Lost Highway (Harvey has more than a passing resemblance to Robert Blake’s ghastly face). The moral of the story: If you’re only going to make one movie, hope it’s as important as Carnival of Souls.

Carnival of Souls is streaming free on YouTube.

Fortune teller Madame Estrella puts curses on carnival employees at now-defunct Long Beach amusement park the Pike.
Fortune teller Madame Estrella puts curses on carnival employees at now-defunct Long Beach amusement park the Pike.
Morgan-Steckler/Fairway International Pictures

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (Ray Dennis Steckler, 1964)

Though it may have one of the greatest titles ever (that’s its “!!?”, not mine), The Incredibly Strange Creatures... is ranked by most connoisseurs of bad as one of the worst movies in film history. But luckily it’s the fun kind of bad, in that ultra-low-budget, Ed Wood–ian sort of way. OK, daddio, dig this plot. A couple of fun-lovin’ youngsters go to a poorly lit carnival (the one-time Long Beach park the Pike), which is run by a fortune teller who puts curses on the other employees because a black cat crossed her path. The main kid, Jerry, who looks as if he’s wearing a Nicolas Cage mask, stumbles into the curse and — get this — becomes a zombie! And can't control his need to kill. Or something like that. Jerry is played by the cool-named actor Cash Flagg, who is actually the film’s director Ray Dennis Steckler himself and, yes, the same Ray Dennis Steckler who would go on to bring the world such films as Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Horney Vampire). 

Madame Estrella creates zombie havoc with her black magic.
Madame Estrella creates zombie havoc with her black magic.
Morgan-Steckler/Fairway International Pictures

Meanwhile, the amusement park, besides having a truly frightening rickety-ass rollercoaster, is home to a plethora of entertainment acts, including dancers, singers and a “take my wife, please” stand-up comic. Their numbers seem like time-padding at first, but the out-of-focus camerawork ends up giving them a mesmerizing quality and a safe break from trying to understand the plot. This is a film experience for the ages!!?

The Incredibly Strange Creatures … is streaming free on YouTube.

Glam band KISS and kiddie-show makers Hanna-Barbera are an unlikely combo, but they teamed up for an epic fun park flick, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
Glam band KISS and kiddie-show makers Hanna-Barbera are an unlikely combo, but they teamed up for an epic fun park flick, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
Hanna-Barbera Productions

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (Gordon Hessler, 1978)

If you didn’t live through the KISS era you may not believe this film really existed (yeah, yeah, it was a TV movie in the United States, but it got a theatrical release in the rest of the world, so we aren’t cheating). The glam-rock band KISS wanted to expand their giant brand to 5-year-olds, so they hired Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Hong Kong Phooey) to produce a movie. What they came up with is one of the goofiest mixes of rock and film ever created.

Six Flags Magic Mountain is full of lifelike (but rather dull) robots. Their inventor, the underappreciated Dr. Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe of Omega Man fame, in full scenery-chewing mode), is getting a little jealous of all the attention the upcoming KISS concert at the park is getting. After he gets fired for being too weird, Dr. Abe sends a robot dressed like KISS frontman Gene Simmons on a nighttime rampage through the park, where he fights some dorky security guards. The real KISS do a little after-hours snooping and have to fight robot replicas of themselves (no way!). The band members get their butts kicked (or their stunt doubles who look nothing like them do), and Dr. Abe imprisons them in the lab. The KISS-bots go on to perform in their place and are so bad they almost spark a park riot, but luckily KISS use their superpowers (Ace Frehley shoots lasers from his eyes!) to escape and fly in, defeating their clones and calming the crowd with a performance of the song “God of Thunder,” minus Peter Criss’ 10-minute drum solo. And this summation doesn’t even have room to mention the heartbreaking love story of Sam and Melissa or the terrifying exploits of rowdy bikers Chopper, Slime and Dirty Dee.

Unfortunately there is way more Abe, Melissa and Sam than there is KISS. And when KISS do act, they make The Village People in Can’t Stop the Music look like Oscar-winning thespians by comparison. But KISS Meets Phantom of the Park is laugh-out-loud KISS-eriffic magic now. It’s shocking that it even got made, but it did its job, and after that Friday-night airing back in ’78, tots everywhere had to have KISS T-shirts, puzzles and stickers. And I bet it didn’t hurt the lines at the amusement park, either.

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park is not streaming. Although many bootlegs exist, its only official U.S. DVD release is buried on the massive Kissology Volume One 1978-1991 box set.

Timothy Bottoms and George Segal in RollercoasterEXPAND
Timothy Bottoms and George Segal in Rollercoaster
Universal Pictures

Rollercoaster (James Goldstone, 1977)

As the ’70s disaster movie craze was coming to an end (with its peak in 1974, when The Towering Inferno somehow, embarrassingly, scored a Best Picture Oscar nom) and after running out of natural disasters to exploit, the creative geniuses moved on to man-made disasters, so why not a terrorist blowing-up rollercoasters? Then add a sorta-all-star-cast (George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Susan Strasberg and the slumming Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, as well as teenage Helen Hunt) and stir.

Bottoms, who appeared in legit ’70s classics The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase, is in zombie mode here as a zonked-out goon blowing up coasters to extort money from theme park owners. Eccentric ride inspector Segal tries to stop him but also has to deal with his higher-ups who always seem to be yelling at him (Widmark and Fonda, obviously there to fatten their SAG pensions). Meanwhile the film's rollercoaster footage is pretty spectacular and, despite the trite plot, the movie ends up being rather exciting.

Rollercoaster was released in “Sensurround,” in which the volume was jacked up loud enough to vibrate theater seats, an expensive cinema fad that started with some hype with the movie Earthquake but died off a few years later with the theatrical repackaging flop of the TV show Battlestar Galactica, unfortunately for amusement park movie fans everywhere.

Rollercoaster was basically ignored on its initial release, which came just weeks after the phenomenon that was Star Wars (which turned the entire galaxy into its own fun park).

Rollercoaster is available on DVD. 

Remind you of anyone? Actress Blythe Danner (aka Gwyneth Paltrow's doppelgänger and mom) plays a reporter in Futureworld.
Remind you of anyone? Actress Blythe Danner (aka Gwyneth Paltrow's doppelgänger and mom) plays a reporter in Futureworld.
American International/MGM

Futureworld (Richard T. Heffron, 1976)

Did you know that Westworld spawned a bizarre sequel that writer Michael Crichton wisely stayed way the hell away from (as well as a 1980s TV series called Beyond Westworld, which audiences stayed way the hell away from, as it only lasted five unwatchable episodes)? Futureworld might be the dullest amusement park ever put on the screen, but that’s not to say it's unwatchable or not worthwhile. After the tragedy at Westworld, reporters (played by Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner, aka the accomplished actress who is Gwyneth Paltrow's doppelgänger and real-life mom) want to see the new fun park, Futureworld, for themselves, since the owners, the Delos Corporation, have assured the public they just spent a whopping $1.5 million to fix everything! Visitors get to hang out in an imitation space station (most of the exteriors are actually the futuristic city of Houston) where they can control robot boxers, ski on the hills of Mars, eat dinner in front of a bigscreen TV, play chess or do some swinging at the intergalactic singles bar (top that, Knott’s Berry Farm).

A downed robot in Futureworld
A downed robot in Futureworld
American International/MGM

Fonda has traded in his motorcycle goggles for big yuppie spectacles and seems uncomfortable as an action star. Danner, on the other hand, gets to enjoy the erotic dream machine in which she is seduced by a cameo-ing Yul Brynner. The ace reporters figure out (incredibly easily) that instead of robots, the real danger here is the Delos Corporation itself. It seems that with all its giant computers and flashy technology, Delos is making clones of visitors, including international big shots, as the whole amusement park is really a cover to take over the world or something like that.

Futureworld is streaming on many platforms, including Google Play and Amazon Prime. 

The effects in Jaws 3-D are primitive by today's standards, but the shark's still scary and a badass bloody predator at SeaWorld.EXPAND
The effects in Jaws 3-D are primitive by today's standards, but the shark's still scary and a badass bloody predator at SeaWorld.
Universal Pictures

Jaws 3-D (Joe Alves, 1983)

The original Jaws in ’76 (directed by Spielberg) was a cultural earth-shaker; the forgettable sequel Jaws 2 (in ’78) didn’t shake the foundation but it made some money. But when the producers went to star Roy Scheider for a third go, he turned them down, so instead they made Son of Jaws (or at least son of Scheider’s Chief Brody) and tried to go over the top in two ways. One, they set it in the fishy Florida amusement park SeaWorld, and two, they shot it in 3-D (hot after the success of Comin’ at Ya! a few years earlier, which helped spawn the attack of the 3-D second sequels to Amityville Horror and Friday the 13th, so why not Jaws too?).

Hunky Dennis Quaid, still looking to fulfill the star potential he showed in Breaking Away, plays Chief Brody’s kid, now working at SeaWorld as some kind of six-packed scientist. And when a shark gets into the water park, it’s in Quaid’s DNA to take it on. Like his old man before him, he has to convince his pencil-pushing boss to let him do his thing. (The boss was played by Louis Gossett Jr. in his follow-up to his Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman. This was his reward?).

Louis Gossett Jr., Dennis Quaid and Simon MacCorkindale in Jaws 3-DEXPAND
Louis Gossett Jr., Dennis Quaid and Simon MacCorkindale in Jaws 3-D
Universal Pictures

The film’s 3-D is often terrible (and very animated-looking), but the shark wreaking havoc on the park is pretty exciting, as it first attacks a corny water ski show and then the underwater glass tunnels, which include a seafood restaurant for park-goers to watch fish swim around while they eat fish. Jaws 3-D is not the worst Jaws movie, thankfully. Jaws: The Revenge came out a few years later with a sleepwalking Michael Caine, counting his per diem on a beach in the Bahamas. Of course, watching Jaws 3-D with today’s eyes and with what we know about the disturbing practices of SeaWorld (check out the unsettling documentary Blackfish), the shark is now the hero as we root for the big-finned one to lay a path of destruction upon this hellacious horror show of an amusement park.

Jaws 3-D is streaming on many platforms, including Google Play and Amazon Prime.

Dreadful things are happening at The Funhouse.EXPAND
Dreadful things are happening at The Funhouse.
Universal Pictures

The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)

The Funhouse was director Tobe Hooper’s studio-financed, theatrical follow-up to his two indie freak shows, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a masterpiece) and Eaten Alive (for Hooper completists only). Made as a quickie cash-in on the success of Friday the 13th and Halloween, it did the trick, not realizing it would be the lead movie on any list of amusement park horror flicks (unlike say, Zombieland or Adventureland, which were made with similar lists in mind).

The Funhouse is of its era: Four annoying teens visit the sleaziest carnival ever put on the screen, including strip shows, leering carnies and a fortune teller who moonlights as a hooker. For completely ridiculous reasons, the teens decide to sneak in and spend the night in the creepy funhouse, but their potential teen-fumbly sex is detoured after they witness a murder and then become the prey of a deformed circus freak.

What makes this movie different from the usual slasher fare, and much better, is that instead of gore and cheap scares, Hooper employs dread to create suspense, giving the film earned thrills. The funhouse set and the killer are so entertainingly peculiar that they give a freshness to the era’s usual suspects. Of the dozens of horror flicks since that have had carnivals, fun parks and even clowns, none has matched the skill that Hooper shows working in an otherwise conventional genre.

The Funhouse is streaming on many platforms, including Google Play and Amazon Prime.

Escape From Tomorrow is a surreal, black-and-white cult flick, made in 2013, secretly shot at Disney World and Disneyland.EXPAND
Escape From Tomorrow is a surreal, black-and-white cult flick, made in 2013, secretly shot at Disney World and Disneyland.
Mankurt Media/PGA

Escape From Tomorrow (Randy Moore, 2013)

Writer-director Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow is the most unusual film on this list. The story of the execution may be better than the outcome, but knowing the backstory of how the film was created makes the viewing experience more fascinating. What you end up with is a beautifully oddball, black-and-white flick that would be at home in both the movie world of Dogma 95 and the Cinema of Transgression. The Walt Disney Company famously keeps a tight legal grip on its properties and its image, so Moore and his cast and crew snuck into both Disney World and Disneyland and shot their flick surreptitiously.

Escape From Tomorrow has one of those plots that may require a night of ’shrooming to really wrap your mind around, skewing close to the world of David Lynch, especially Eraserhead, but basically it’s about a family visiting the magical resort after the father finds out he has been fired. He embarks on a surreal journey, starting with stalking a couple of teenage French girls around the park, which leads to aliens, robots, secret plots, costumed characters working as prostitutes, conspiracies and bad dreams. Everything you can imagine Disney blowing its top over.

What film set at a Disney theme park would be complete without a scene with a chow-down on a humongous turkey leg?EXPAND
What film set at a Disney theme park would be complete without a scene with a chow-down on a humongous turkey leg?
Mankurt Media/PGA

After the movie made a splash at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, part of the fun was waiting to see how the mega-company would try to squash it, and to the surprise of many industry insiders and the delight of freedom-loving art fans, Disney didn’t unleash their lawyers to open up cans of whup-ass on it. The film's lasting impact has been more as a culty curio, but it’s actually incredible-looking, with creative and bold ideas (and not just because of the stealthy way it was shot). Yes, it’s a sorta takedown of what Disney supposedly stands for, turning the amusement park into a sunny nightmare, but in some ways it’s also a kooky love letter to what a place like Disney can spark in the imagination.

Escape From Tomorrow is streaming on many platforms, including Google Play and Amazon Prime.

Amusement park themes on TV

The movies on this list helped give audiences new ways to look at fun parks and carnivals, whether negative or positive, often scary and dangerous and even futuristic (hello, Jurassic Park, all of the above). They also helped engrave amusement parks into our culture, making them legitimate onscreen settings.

But any amusement park movie list would be remiss not to mention the impact of the small screen. As far as I can tell, nothing moved the needle on the ’70s rise of amusement parks as family vacation destinations as much as The Brady Bunch episode when the geeky family visits Kings Island Amusement Park in season five, episode 11, “The Cincinnati Kids.” Remember when Mike’s important architectural blueprints get mixed up with Jan’s Yogi Bear poster, and a cross-park relay race to the tune of “The William Tell Overture” is the only way to save Mike from total career embarrassment (“Look at Alice run!”)?

Sure, The Partridge Family went there first; though their episode gave the world the groovy song, “Together We’re Better,” it didn’t become the quintessential amusement park experience for a generation of TV-watching kids the way The Brady Bunch did (probably because it centered on Keith, Danny and Reuben strangely falling for the same lady). The Brady trip, besides being one of their more memorable episodes, was also a perfect infomercial for the recently opened park, with its rides, food and Hanna-Barbera characters wandering around. (Greg even stalked a young woman dressed in one of the costumes.) Yeah, that kiddie show The Banana Splits (Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky!) shot at both Six Flags Over Texas and the Coney Island Waterpark (also in Cincinnati, which must be the most fun city in the United States), and Evel Knievel did televised stunts from fun parks, but more than any of these movies, The Brady Bunch episode jump-started the modern amusement park theme era. Try to live up to that, Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Crichton.

The Brady Bunch is streaming on Hulu, while The Partridge Family is on Amazon Prime.

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