Friday, April 20, 2012

Review: The Devil's Carnival

Any time a theater experience starts with a live performance by a couple of hot, scantily clad contortionists and a sideshow barker leading the crowd in chants of “Take me to hell!” you know you’re in for a good time. That’s exactly how the festivities kicked off Wednesday at the Plaza. Director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer Terrance Zdunich, the creative minds behind the cult hit Repo! The Genetic Opera have reunited with many of their stock players, as well as some new faces, to being us a new dark musical in The Devil’s Carnival, and they’ve taken the flick on tour. For now, this is the only way to see it, and it comes complete with bonus features in the form of live performances, a 15 minute collection of behind the scenes footage from Repo, and Q & A sessions with the filmmakers and (in select cities) stars. The main event is, of course, the movie itself; and let me tell you folks, it’s a hell of a flick, pun completely intended.
The Devil’s Carnival tells the stories of three lost souls; John, a heartbroken father who kills himself out of grief over his lost son, Merrywood, a kleptomaniac with an obsession for all things sparkly, and Tamara, whose only sins seem to be her gullibility and horrible taste in men. They wake up to find themselves in The Devil’s Carnival. Here, the games, sideshows, and attractions are all presided over by Lucifer and his assorted cast of minions. As Lucifer tells us Aesop’s Tales, their connections to the lives, deaths, and transgressions of the three sinners are revealed. Step right up folks, it’s time to have some fun at the expense of the damned, and there’s a loser every time.
First off, it’s inevitable that this movie is going to draw comparisons to Repo. It’s a musical by the same writer and director and it stars many of the same people. That is about where the similarity ends, however. This flick is completely different. It’s far more dark fantasy musical than horror rock opera. True, it maintains some of the unmistakable songwriting and visual styles of the Bousman/Zdunich creative team, but another Repo it isn’t. In the place of Repo’s dysopian technogoth-cityscape is a surreal carnival nightmare-realm. In place of the industrial rock are tunes that would sound at home in an old time vaudeville show. In place of the violent, sometimes graphic horror of Repo, there are morality tales and dark fantasy. This is a very good thing. As much as I enjoyed Repo, had they gone the safe route and recreated that feel to appeal to Repo’s cult following, I would have been highly disappointed. Instead, in The Devil’s Carnival they have created a whole new world with its own rules, mythology, atmosphere, and magic.
Aesthetically, the flick is mind blowing. During the post shot Q&A, Bousman said that it was filmed in graveyard for carnival equipment. They could not have found a more perfect place. This rag-tag midway was lit with Argento-esque vivid reds, blues, and greens, and accented with lots and lots of darkness. The carnival seems to exist within a void. The result is lush, garish, and desolate at the same time. It looks like something EC comics would have come up with in their heyday. Bousman’s eye for detail and creating compelling visuals is fully on display. The costumes are perfectly appropriate for the setting, and the makeup looks great. Lucifer’s makeup in particular is killer. Like the look of the film itself, he walks a line between cartoonish and menacing. He reminded me a little bit of a better-looking mixture of the devil from Judgement Day and the Graffix bong jester. Wow, let’s see who gets those references. The Painted Doll’s makeup was more subtle, but extremely effective. I hate so single them out, because everyone looked great, but I can’t make the entire review about the makeup and wardrobe.
The acting, however, I could probably go on and on forever about. Everyone was spot on. Honestly, the only thing I could say that I didn’t like about the acting is that only a few characters got significant screen time. A whole carnival’s worth of characters were introduced, but we only really got to know certain ones. As the film is the first of a proposed series, and we learn that certain performers are chosen for certain performances, hopefully we’ll get more time with some of them, particularly Bill Moseley’s Magician, in subsequent films. Writer Terrance Zdunich plays Lucifer, and he eats the screen alive. As good as he was as Graverobber in Repo, I think Old Scratch just might be the role he was born to play. He even gets to deliver the best line of the film “I'm not in the market of killing innocent children. That’s God’s jurisdiction. I just deal with the guilty.” I mean, come on, how great is that line? Dayton Callie pretty much owns every scene he’s in as Ticket-Keeper, Shawn Crahan gets over on sheer presence alone, and Emilie Autumn, who I had never heard of before this film (I know, I know, my friends have already taken me to task over that) is absolutely enchanting as The Painted Doll. There are so many great performances by the likes of Ogre, Sean Patrick Flanery, Briana Evigan, Jessica Lowndes, and so many others that there really isn’t a weak link at all. When you take into account that all of these roles required not only great acting performances, but strong vocal performances as well, the cast becomes even more impressive.
When it comes to the music, I’m not going to lie; I thought it started out a little slow. The first couple of numbers are good, real good, but not great. Then, as the movie picks up steam, so does the soundtrack. The back end is loaded with great tunes. Songs like “Trust Me,” “Beautiful Stranger,” and “Grace for Sale” are all sure-fire crowd-pleasures, showing off both Zdunich’s songwriting skill and his flare for the dramatic. There are a couple of songs, however, that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The first truly great musical moment comes courtesy of Five Finger Death Punch vocalist Ivan Moody as The Hobo Clown. Now I’m not a FFDP fan by any means, but the way he performs “A Penny for a Tale,” a damn good song in its own right, is downright awe-inspiring. His rich baritone soars, wringing and coaxing every last bit of dramatic potential from the song. Who knew there was real talent there? “Prick Goes the Scorpions Tale,” performed by Emilie Autumn, is my personal favorite song in the flick. It’s the “Zydrate Anatomy” of The Devil’s Carnival, meaning that it is the catchiest and the most likely to get firmly stuck in your head. In a perfect world, both of these songs would probably be nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. Neither would win it though. Why? Because “In All My Dreams I Drown” would take the award, that’s why. Holy shit this duet between Jessica Lowndes and Terrance Zdunich is incredible. I can’t call it my favorite (for personal reasons I find the song kinda depressing), but the power and beauty of this song are undeniable. If this song doesn’t grab you somewhere down deep, you’re either dead or you have no soul. It has a little bit of a Leonard Cohen vibe to it. It’s an absolute masterpiece, and I don’t use that word lightly. I’ll put it this way, out of both Repo and Carnival, it’s the best song, and I could easily see it being covered over and over again once mainstream vocal artists discover it. All of the other songs prove that Zdunich is a skilled composer, but “In All My Dreams I Drown” proves that he’s a master of the craft.
My only complaint about the film is its length. I don’t know the exact running time, but it’s right around an hour. I realize that the short running time was probably due to the budget. I can’t fault it for that, but I would have liked to see more. The back-stories of the three sinners could have used some fleshing out, particularly Tamara, and their judgments felt a little rushed at moments. The ending of the film, however, lets us know that this is just the prologue for a truly intriguing story. I can’t wait to see what comes next. I guess the filmmakers embrace the old carnie philosophy of “always leave them wanting more.”
At this point Cellmates, I’m going to rant a little bit. While I wouldn’t really call this movie “horror,” it does appeal to the same audience, so for the purposes of this little call to action I’m going to consider it under the banner of Independent Horror. There is a lot of lip service paid to the cause of supporting indie horror. I hear people complain all the time that Hollywood and the mainstream film industry is out of ideas and keep feeding us crap. I agree whole-heartedly. The problem is, most horror fans seem unwilling to put their money where their mouth is. They seem unwilling to drive an hour or more to see a limited run indie flick. They’d rather download a torrent than cast a vote for better movies by buying a ticket. They won’t take the time to search these films out. Every time I go to a small theater to see an indie horror movie and I (well, Leah’s usually with me) am the only one there, I fear for the state of the horror business. That’s why it did my heart good to see The Devil’s Carnival Roadshow play to a packed house. It showed me that sometimes, if you capture people’s imaginations, they will show up. As both Bousman and Zdunich emphasized during the Q & A, the support of the fans got this film made, and the continuation of the project all depends on the support of the fans. I implore you Cellmates; if you live in one of the cities listed below, please go see this flick. Not only is it outstanding, but you will be striking a blow for filmmaking outside the Hollywood system. Buy a soundtrack or T-shirt if you can. The indie film industry survives on the support of people just like you and me, so I’ll send out the battle cry you hear so often on this site, SUPPORT INDEPENDENT HORROR! Ok, I’m done ranting now. You can go HERE to get tickets to a show near you. Here are the remaining dates on the tour…
4/20 – Tampa, FL @ The Tampa Pitcher Show
4/21 – Charlotte, NC @ The Neighborhood Theater
4/22 – Richmond, VA @ The Byrd
4/24 – Pittsburgh, PA @ The Hollywood Theater
4/25 – Baltimore, MD @ The Charles Theatre
4/26 – New York, NY @ Times Scare NYC
4/27 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Painted Bride
4/28 – South Hadley, MA @ The Tower Theater
4/29 – Boston, MA @ The Foxboro Theater
5/1 – Toronto, ON, Canada @ Toronto Underground Theater
5/2 – Toledo, OH @ Collingwood Arts Center
5/3 – Chicago, IL @ The Music Box Theater
5/4 – Des Moines, IA @ The Fluer Cinema Cafe
5/5 – Kansas City, KS @ Leawood Cinema Theater
5/6 – Denver, CO @ The Oriental Theater
5/7 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Tower Theater
5/9 – Seattle, WA @ The Admiral Theater
5/10 – Portland, OR @ The Clinton St. Theater
5/11 – Sacramento, CA @ The Colonial Theater
If you live in any of those cities, I can’t recommend enough that you go. This is the kind of movie that is meant to be seen in an atmosphere like this, and as there are no details currently available about a DVD release, this may be your only chance to see it for a while. While they may not be the first to use the “afterlife as carnival” motif (before you even say it Juggalos, it's way older than COC too), I promise you that you’ve never witnessed anything like this movie before. It’s a completely engrossing and enjoyable cinematic experience, and the added fun of the Roadshow just makes it that much better. It’s well worth going out of your way to attend. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing the film to my attention, I LOVED it! I don't think I've seen the theatre that packed since they showed 'The Shining' in 35mm back in December! It was great fun & I wish they could come back for an encore viewing.

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