If you get a chance, flip through Marc Hartzman’s book, American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers, for a quick reminder of just how intriguing sideshows and their accompanying freaks can really be. The thought of seeking out a long-forgotten roadside attraction comes with its own rush of queasy excitement, a temptation that vacationing father John Goodall (John David Hart; BELL WITCH: THE MOVIE) can’t resist.
After blowing his bonus check at Sea World, John is driving home with his family when a planned shortcut leads them to the middle of nowhere. After receiving directions from a matronly storekeeper sporting an overripe accent and a bevy of broad facial expressions, (think a female Fred Gwynne from PET SEMETERY after about a pound of crack), the family is led to Levon Gibbon’s Old Time Side Show, a decrepit roadside attraction featuring a museum of oddities. The Side Show is run by a crusty barker (J.R. Reynolds) who provides the family with a quick tour and then offers to show John some exhibits that aren’t so family friendly for an additional fee. John coughs up the extra dough to see the good shit, but he’s inexplicably spooked by the sight of fetuses in jars, so he takes the family and bolts as The Barker mocks his retreat (“Go ahead, cut n’ run, City Boy! But yer gonna miss the wall o’ titty pitchers!”).
The Goodalls don’t get far before their mini-van runs out of gas and they’re forced to shack up at a nearby cabin. The teenage daughter and her friend sneak out late at night to smoke a joint and get snatched by a vaguely depicted teenage-girl snatcher. Mom gets snatched moments later. Suddenly realizing that they’re dealing with an entire clan of hair-sniffing sideshow miscreants sporting rubbery latex facial deformities, John and his young son join forces to rescue the women and maybe kill a few freaks in the process, budget permitting.
The first half of SIDE SHO plays like a Disneyfied low-budget horror movie: father and son searching for hand-held weapons and high-fiving each other while the caged women get their breasts awkwardly fondled by The Barker’s cane, it’s like SADISTIC INBRED FAMILY ROBINSON or HONEY, I ALMOST GOT YOU RAPED BY A CARNIVAL BARKER. Cut out a few of the F-words and the single booby shot and the first 45 minutes bear a strong resemblance to an all-ages adventure film that strongly advocates familial unity and loyalty.
But SIDE SHO takes a darker route during its well-paced second half, drenching the kill scenes in heavier and heavier dollops of dime store gore. Although it’s not a particularly scary movie, it is fun to watch at times, and while the increasingly brutal tone isn’t sincere enough to be truly affecting, the change of pace in the latter half is enough to hold your attention. The movie didn’t feature any real-life sideshow freaks, however, which was a major disappointment. Stick around after the end credits for a totally cheesy stinger.