Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Circus

George Romero scripts (from a story by Sydney J. Bounds) and his longtime cinematographer Michael Gornick directs "The Circus," an episode heavy on atmosphere and filled with creepy monsters despite the predictable arc of its narrative.

Kevin O'Connor plays Bragg, a cynical newspaper columnist who enjoys exposing charlatans "to keep from going crazy." He stumbles upon a notorious circus run by the bizarre Dr. Nis (William Hickey), who promises a real-life vampire, werewolf, and mummy in his show. Bragg remains skeptical but agrees to a private showing of the circus "talent."

The monsters look cool, especially the vampire, which is more Orlock than Dracula. The circus itself is suitably gloomy and dark. It's obligatory, given this setup, that Bragg will discover his skepticism is misplaced and the horrors he's witnessing are real, but Gornick does an admirable job building a sense of dread and curiosity without resorting to creatures stalking the night and killing people. Being close to them, secured by the thinnest veneer of control, is enough.

The suspense stems not from being in danger but from creepy fascination. What will we see next? How will Bragg try to rationalize the latest horror? How can he keep rationalizing what he's seeing?

Near the end, Romero gives Nis a rather eloquent justification for why he showcases these depravities, and it's not hard to hear his words as a defense of the horror genre. Nis does not seek to titillate or disgust but to inspire wonder, to open the hearts and minds of people and to "keep alive the faith in the mystery of nature."

"If a man who believes sees a ghost, he's merely frightened. A man who disbelieves and comes face to face with what he denies may well die of shock."

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