George A. Romero created the horror anthology television series Tales from the Darkside in the 1980s. The show debuted with a pilot episode in October 1983 and was picked up for syndication in September 1984. It lasted four seasons, from July 1988 to July 1989.
Because it was a horror show, each episode was originally broadcast late at night on Tribune Broadcasting. The show is episodes featuring genres such as horror, science fiction, and fantasy, as well as dark humor or lighter themes depending on the tone of the episode. Every episode featured a stand-alone short story with a plot surprise that kept you watching the show till the end. Since October 2012, reruns of the series have been carried on Horror Channel in the United Kingdom.
Some of the episodes in the series were adapted from or written by well-known authors, while others were original screenplays. Stephen King’s short stories “Word Processor of the Gods” and “Sorry, Right Number.” were among the adaptations. Frederik Pohl, Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, Michael Bishop, Robert Bloch, John Cheever, Michael McDowell, and Fredric Brown were among the authors represented.
Tales from the Darkside: Volume One, which was published in 1988, contained a number of stories and episode novelizations. Following the conclusion of Tales from the Darkside in 1988, Laurel and long-time Romero collaborator Richard P. Rubinstein started Monsters, a syndicated weekly horror anthology with a similar format.
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, starring Deborah Harry, Christian Slater, William Hickey, Julianne Moore, and Steve Buscemi, was released in 1990 as a result of the series’ success.
The episode that we will be looking at today is The Circus. It is from the third season of the show, and it follows the strange happenings of a bizarre circus. Dr. Niss is played by William Hickey and is the owner and ringmaster of the “Exhibition of Wonder,” a circus featuring real-life creatures as its main attraction.
Bragg, an investigative journalist, played by Kevin O’Connor, specializes in debunking unusual and bizarre stories. So, he decides to investigate the circus to establish it is a hoax. The show follows Bragg as he becomes a member of the troupe after he sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. The script is written by George A. Romero and is based on a short story by Sydney J. Bounds.
The circus is largely regarded as one of the most terrifying episodes in the series, with its gothic atmosphere and gruesome makeup effects creating a compelling and claustrophobic setting. This is the fourth and final episode of Tales from the Darkside, directed by Michael Gornick. In season one, he directed “Slippage” and “The Word Processor of the Gods,” and in season two, he directed “The Devil’s Advocate.”
Be Careful not to Bragg
This episode, like the others, starts with an ominous narration that introduces us to the dark side. But the actual story begins when Journalist Bragg walks into the vacant circus area. Bragg is a conceited reviewer for a local newspaper, and he specializes in exposing scam artists and frauds. He attends a grisly circus that promises supernatural scares. He takes a look around the circus and begins writing a damaging piece about it.
He starts by writing that this circus does not have the lucrativeness of the gypsy wagon, nor the sense of mystery provided by the tents of the medium. He calls it simply uninteresting. He lights a cigarette and drops the match to the floor, oblivious to the fact that the match is still burning.
Dr. Niss, the ringmaster of the circus, enters the scene and stomps on the smoldering sawdust. Because of his articles, he knows who Bragg is. They have a conversation where Bragg keeps calling the circus a hoax. He appears to have been on the lookout for the circus as rumor has it that the circus never visits major cities and only visits isolated rural communities for a day.
However, he had arrived at the circus that day by pure chance because his car collapsed nearby.
This rumor was what had piqued his curiosity and led him to the circus with the intention to debunk its ringmaster, Dr. Niss, and his circus. Bragg asks Niss for a private showing with the highlights of his show which Niss is happy to oblige the skeptic. The vampire is the first attraction that Bragg is shown.
Nanoosh, a circus assistant, wheeled out a coffin and opened the lid, revealing a grotesque, long-nailed creature. Nanoosh then takes out a little live lamb from a bag, which the vampire then kills and drinks the blood. Bragg doesn’t really believe it even then and thinks the teeth are fake. He also believes it is too gruesome for children to watch. Niss clears this misconception by letting him know that this was just a preshow ritual to satiate the creature and avoid accidents during the show.
They did a fantastic job portraying the vampire here. This vampire has a more animalistic appearance than the ones we see usually. He has reptilian skin and teeth that look freakishly familiar to veneers. For an episode that was filmed in the 1980s, this show has relatively well-developed characters and costumes.
Kevin is comforted by his assumption that he is merely dealing with a pretend vampire and begins to examine the vampire’s ‘makeup’ when he is attacked by savage dogs! The dogs, it appears, are used to keep the acts in control – and they’re rather efficient at it since the vampire flees to his grave when he sees them. However, their leashes shatter moments later, scaring Kevin, barking frantically as they come upon him. There is a moment where we see a dog find a dead rat and eat it.
Kevin, who is more than a bit unsettled, believes that he is ready for the next act. He even appreciates William’s showmanship, despite the fact that he still thinks it’s all to be a hoax. Later, to show him the next act, Bragg is led backstage. Niss takes him to observe the performers in their cages instead of showing the next act where we see the vampire again.
The vampire, interestingly, cowers when a lamp is held up to it, indicating that it is afraid of the light. Niss does a backstage tour for his ticket-holding audience before his circus starts as well. Niss starts showing Bragg all the other creatures he has in his circus. Backstage, Bragg meets the werewolf, who is still human, which irks Bragg as he wants to see the transformation happen. Niss explains that lycanthropy cannot be controlled like that.
We then move on to the reanimated corpse, which is similar to Frankenstein’s Monster. The corpse shows up and hasn’t been caged already. Niss says that the monster is a botched-up attempt at a reanimated corpse. Since he hasn’t been confined, the corpse goes into the main circus area, and we see his head fall onto the ground. The Creature, Niss explains, was his most recent creation, although it wasn’t a perfect success. That means it’s time to deal with the failure in the only humanitarian way possible: by tearing it apart using the dogs. All of this is getting to Kevin, who is running out of rational explanations for what he’s witnessing.
He threatens William with a negative review that would end the circus for good! Which, no matter how influential a columnist may be, appears to be out of grasp. Especially when the circus can get by with such a small audience already. During that time, Niss drags Bragg to see the last attraction, the mummy.
On the other hand, Kevin does not storm out since a part of him hasn’t totally shut out his youthful sense of wonder. The final exhibit, the mummy, is a must-see for him! The mummy is a desiccated body with milky moving eyes. Kevin pays the price of the curious when his heart surrenders to dread as that creature opens its eyes and climbs from its coffin.
While Bragg had continued to maintain that the circus is a staged deception during the entire duration of the showing, the mummy seems to be the last straw, especially after being threatened. While looking at the mummy, he dies of shock, which thrills Dr. Niss.
He mocks a dying Bragg that his circus provides a “public service” because Bragg can no longer bother anyone else. Dr. Niss also mentions that he invites children to his concerts to demonstrate to them the importance of being curious about the world they live in rather than being fearful of it and not jump to quick conclusions about the world like the columnist.
The episode ends with an actual showing of the circus acts. Dr. Niss presents his next act to the audience and kindly introduces it to the crowd, which is made up of people of various ages. Dr. Niss is proud to present Bragg’s reanimated body, his newest attraction.
“The Circus” must truly be applauded for its terrifying makeup effects, which create a fresh and terrible take on the aforementioned Universal Monsters. Tales from the Darkside, in particular, create a ghoulish appearance of Dr. Niss’ pet vampire, whose demonic appearance complements his bestial personality—a dramatic contrast to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula’s suave and cultured demeanor in The Circus.
The dark and squalid environs of the titular circus are also compelling, offering the ideal backdrop for famous movie creatures to lurk in the shadows. Cobwebs, coffins, and rusted jail cells containing the vampire and werewolf are among the spooky attractions.
The circus appears to be fantastic, decrepit, and full of the atmosphere. As one might expect from a screenplay written by Romero, the writing is terrific, particularly the dialogue. For a television episode, the ending is appropriately violent.
“The Circus,” a cautionary story about the perils of unshakable skepticism, is a subtle criticism of individuals who refuse to embrace the truth, even when given with incontrovertible evidence of remarkable happenings. The episode has a good amount of gore which is palatable yet uncomfortable the entire time.
It makes you want to look forward to each new moment and character since there is a fresh take provided at each turn. The best part about the show is that the episodes are not very long. They can be watched as per one’s convenience, and they most certainly don’t disappoint. It provides good amounts of gore as well. This episode, in particular, is a must-watch for creature feature buffs for sure.