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Side Show (1981)

Unrated | | Crime, Drama, Thriller | TV Movie 4 June 1981
A teenage boy runs away from home. He joins the circus but finds out that it's not all what it's cracked up to be. But then the boy becomes a witness to a murder, and he must try to stay out of the killer's way.


William Conrad


George Kirgo




Cast overview, first billed only:
Lance Kerwin ... Nick Pallas
Connie Stevens ... Graciela
William Windom ... Byron Gage
Barbara Rhoades ... Paula Picasso
Albert Paulsen ... Scholl
Calvin Levels Calvin Levels ... Billy
Anthony Franciosa ... Zaranov
Red Buttons ... Harry
Jerry Maren ... Tom Tiny
Patty Maloney ... Thelma Tiny
Sandra Elaine Allen Sandra Elaine Allen ... Goliatha
Joy McConnochie Joy McConnochie ... Ronda
John Edward Allen John Edward Allen ... Antonio
Richard C. Beard Richard C. Beard ... Excalibur
Bob Yerkes Bob Yerkes ... Man Without a Face
Learn more

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Nick Pallas is a young runaway determined to make a life for himself in the circus. He quickly meets up with Harry who takes the youngster under his wing. Nick's speciality in the side show is puppeteering and is billed as the "World Youngest Puppeteer". His first day at the circus Red takes him around to meet all of the other side show attractions: midget couple Tom and Thelma Tiny, world's tallest woman Goliatha, sword swallower Excalibur, tattooed lady Paula Picasso, the Man Without a Face, and a few others like the woman with no limbs and some really fat lady. The side show folks are not to associate with the big top folks, and no one associates with the carny. Nick ignores this rule, however, much to the chagrin of the circus manager. He befriends Zaranov, the lion tamer, and falls in love with Graciela one of the main attractions. Things looks great for Nick, but he will soon discover things that aren't all that nice. Written by Ørnås

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


The curtain comes down! The crowd goes home! The nightmare begins...


Crime | Drama | Thriller


Unrated | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


Filmed in 1978. See more »


Circus Day Parade
Written by William Conrad
See more »

User Reviews

Sort of Disturbing, Actually
18 August 2008 | by SquonkamaticSee all my reviews

First off, I hate circuses. I find them to be barbaric, cruel, stupid, and creepy. Trained animal acts are not entertaining unless you are some kind of troglodyte. Trapeze and high wire acts are for people who are secretly hoping to see the performer fall. And clowns? Forget it.

This is a pretty demented little movie using a circus as it's backdrop, though it is NOT a horror film by any stretch of the imagination. It's actually a sort of character study, with Lance Kerwin as the 16 year old grandson of a legendary puppeteer leaving home and joining the sideshow of a circus during what appears to be the late 1930s. The kid gets to meet the various freaks, geeks and ring performers and finds them to be people with very real feelings, shortcomings, frailties, hopes, dreams, and behavioral quirks.

He makes friends with the sideshow MC (Red Buttons, doing the best he can), earns the respect of the resident Lion Tamer (Anthony Franciosa, apparently convinced he was in an A list movie), develops a timid crush on the Trapeze Lady (Connie Stevens, who should be ashamed), even gets the resident midget couple's son & family to come visit and prove that they aren't ashamed to have sideshow midgets as parents, and so on.

My favorite was the Tattooed Lady, Paula Picasso, who doesn't hesitate to offer to take the young lad on a world tour across her body, which is about when I started realizing that something strange was going on here. Then we get the first of three examples of the sneering, evil manager of the circus using the "N" word to refer to the young puppeteer's African American roustabout pal. I quickly checked the IMDb and saw that the movie was actually made in 1978 but not shown publicly until 1981, which explained some of it. But for a potentially family oriented thriller the three instances sort of stopped the show cold, as it were.

Then there came the scene where Ms. Stevens connives to have the young puppeteer visit her in her sleeper car on the circus train, where she offers him alcohol. Then she disrobes (partially), pulls the young lad onto her bed, de-shirts him, and starts making kissy lips all over the poor guy's neck. And by golly if he doesn't screw her, though the film tastefully cuts to a commercial at the key moment.

Tastefully? Ask yourself this: If the focus of the movie had been a 16 year old GIRL puppeteer and an adult male performer had been the one to try and ply her with booze & bed her, would this have been approved of for network TV?? It represents a curious double standard about adolescent sexuality that comes to mind whenever I read about these pathetic school teachers having sex with the boys in their 8th grade reading class: When an underage guy has sex with an older woman, we say he got lucky, and refer to the woman as "easy". When an underage girl has sex with an older man, we call it statutory rape, and refer to the guy as a pedophile. Someone someday should try to explain the difference to me, though Lance Kerwin's adult life as a drug addict is somewhat easier to understand now.

Anyway, the producers decided that just having a quirky, offbeat movie about a young kid getting to know the performers in a sideshow wasn't going to cut the muster, so they add a couple of murders (one might have been a suicide, it's never explained), stage a lion attack, inject the racism & sex, and eventually have a fight to the death between the suspected murderer and one of the sideshow freaks that ends in tragedy. And at the end everything turns out to be just hunky dory, even though people have died and your kids were still probably crying hysterically at the sudden turn of events. This is one twisted, potentially disturbing little movie.

Or two: It seems like there were two ideas crossed here, a movie about humanizing the offbeat performers of a sideshow and another about a crazed murderer ingeniously slaughtering his way through the cast & crew of a traveling circus, along with a coming-of- age subplot thrown in for good measure. My question is, who in their right mind though this was a good idea? It's interesting and fairly well made -- I give it six out of ten just for being so weird, and it did hold my attention -- and like "The Simpson's" paints a believable portrait of a closed microcosm of humanity that is both removed and yet familiar to those of us who maybe consider ourselves outcasts within society. It is we who are the freaks, cackling and guffawing for $.50 cents a peek.

But I don't know. Here is a film destined to spend the rest of eternity as a video rental era oddity slowly oxidizing on the few thousands of VHS tapes that were pressed back when Trans World Entertainment got desperate enough to release it. "Star Trek" fans might want to seek it out for an appearance by "The Doomsday Machine"'s Commodore Matt Decker, William Windom, who has the exact same nervous breakdown scene as he did when Captain Kirk asked him what happened to his ship.

The film was also directed by William Conrad of "Jake & The Fat Man" fame, and produced by Sid and Marty Kroft (yes, the H.R. Puffnstuff guys) so there is definitely some sort of bizarre, doped out 1970s cult appeal here waiting to be re-discovered. Though just whom would be re-discovering it I haven't a clue, since it's all in such incredibly poor taste that you just sort of have to marvel at it, and wonder what the hell they could possibly have been thinking.

6/10: John Waters, eat your heart out.

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Release Date:

4 June 1981 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Asesinato bajo la lona See more »

Filming Locations:

Casa Grande, Arizona, USA See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Krofft Productions See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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