Technical aspects: B+
This movie starts off with a pretty awesome opening credits sequence, using vintage photos and advertisements for actual freakshows and side shows that were popular in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, that was probably my favorite part of the movie.
The basic plot is that a typical suburban American family (plus a friend) is on vacation, heading home on their roadtrip. The father, John (J.D. Hart), is stopping at old roadside amusement parks and side shows in order to take photographs for a book he’s putting together. At a gas station somewhere in Florida, he finds out about a supposedly abandoned freak show just down the road, so the family takes a slight detour, despite the complaints of the daughter, Christy (Toni Robider), and her friend Steffi (Elizabeth Bailey.)
Turns out that “Side Sho” is not actually abandoned, and the barker (J.R. Reynolds) offers to give them a tour. The family splits up, the girls and the mother, Gwen (Dana Poulson), going one way, the son, Cory (Hunter Ballard) going around the grounds to take pictures, and the father heading with the barker to the “real” freak show. Turns out that it’s full of twisted things like malformed human fetuses, so John freaks out and intends to get the family out of there. Meanwhile Cory has an after school special “we can all be friends despite our differences” moment with a young boy with a facial deformity.
The family decides to leave, and they rush out of there, but not before a mysterious someone puts water in their gas tank! So the car conveniently dies in front of a group of creepy cabins, and the man there says that it was an old fishing camp. He’ll let them stay the night, since it’s getting dark. But shock! awe! horror! This used to be a prison camp! And the man letting them stay there is part of an extended family of deformed freaks descended from the prisoners, as are the barker and the woman from the gas station, and they intend to kill the father and the son, while keeping the women as “new breeding stock” since they’re getting so inbred!
What follows for the last two thirds of the movie is your basic slasher run-and-escape-and-fight-and-die-and-kill-and-run-some-more, until the end when two of our heroes escape, to be picked up by a police officer… but as the scene ends, we see that HE IS ONE OF THE DEFORMED FREAK FAMILY.
The movie is pretty average, which in some ways is a shame because the tech is great. The cinematography is fantastic, and the sound direction is good as well. Set design and such is also great. Leonard Wolf provides the soundtrack, which has more presence than I’m used to (by which I mean I noticed it pretty constantly, rather than it fading into the background) but it was well done and has some pretty good tracks. It’s actually kind of sad that such good tech went to a film that’s so average in many regards.
The acting is middle of the road. It’s not unwatchable, but particularly at the beginning, the dialogue is horribly stilted. Very “you have said your line, therefore I will now respond with my line,” not flowing like anything resembling an actual conversation. It sounded almost like sitcom dialogue where they pause for the laugh-track or other audience reaction. This seemed to be less of an issue later in the movie, though probably because it was more running and screaming and less “conversation.” The woman from the gas station they meet at the beginning bothered me the most as far as acting – she looked like a kid doing an impression of a crotchety old woman, scrunching up her face to talk out the side of her mouth (if you ever watched the 90s kid show “The Amanda Show” on Nickelodeon… it looked like Amanda Bynes’ old woman impression)… It was distractingly awkward looking.
The story itself is pretty basic slasher fare, without really adding anything new. The effects are pretty good, from the makeup of the freak family to the blood. And while the plot is standard, and you can pretty well guess which characters are going to be offed, the death scenes are pretty creative. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two reptile-related deaths in the same non-reptile-horror film – one person having their face crushed in with a turtle, one getting a terrarium with a poisonous snake smashed on his head. Lots of killing of the innocents, lots of return killings of the villains. But it’s not aided by having the predictable “twist” ending of the escape-but-not-really-because-it-was-a-trap. That just shoved it into eye-rolling territory for me.