Written by: Terrance Zdunich
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Sean Patrick Flanery, Briana Evigana, and Jessica Lowndes
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďFa la la, itís off to hell we go!"
Say what you want about Darren Lynn Bousmanís post-Saw output--sure, some of itís struggled to get distribution, and they havenít all clicked for me personally, but thereís no denying his enthusiasm and prolificacy during that time. Since departing the series, heís directed five movies that have represented an assortment of sub-genres and styles. However, if Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devilís Carnival are any indication, his heart really lies in musicals. There are plenty of weird, obscure sub-genres scattered throughout horror, but the musical is perhaps the rarest of them all, and The Devilís Carnival makes a good case that Bousman is the horror-opera auteur of our time.
Reuniting with Repo collaborator Terrance Zdunich, Bousman fuses his unique blend of rock and shock with the anthology format. A trio of characters--a grieving father (Sean Flannery), a petty thief (Briana Evigan), and a young girl (Jessica Lowndes)--are all killed and go straight to hell. Upon arrival, theyíre met not with fire and brimstone, but with a dark, twisted carnival thatís presided over by a ticket-keeper (Dayton Callie) and a bunch of freakish carnies (among their ranks is Bill Moseley). It turns out that Lucifer (Zdunich) sees hell as a sideshow and likes to dole out his punishments in song, and he subjects his three victims to torments inspired by Aesopís fables.
Bousmanís return to this genre is also a return to form for the director; itís his most interesting and bold film since Repo, and, best of all, The Devilís Carnival isnít just some uninspired rehash of that previous effort. While a lot of the same hallmarks recur, such as the grand, garish production design and the irreverent, full-throttle spirit, this is different material; whereas Repo was a glammy, gothic, cyberpunk fuelled satire, The Devilís Carnival is more akin to a Medieval morality play thatís been twisted and distorted by a funhouse mirror. An inspired melding of concept, theme, and tone, the film comes together quite nicely, especially once the anthology concept settles in.
The three episodes are nicely intertwined, as the three characters interact before going on their separate ways. Evigan falls prey to the devilís sideshow charms first in an update of ďThe Dog and its Shadow.Ē A serial thief and altogether greedy woman, Ms. Merrywood opts to participate in a coin toss game with her own twin that turns into a swift punishment. On the other end of the spectrum, Lowndes is playing a sweet, trustworthy girl who (perhaps unfairly?) was sent to hell after being killed by an abusive boyfriend. As such, sheís all too willing to run into the arms of The Scorpion (Marc Senter), a coiffed up greaser type whoís ready to show her the time of her afterlife. Unfortunately for her, sheís the frog to his scorpion, so she too ends up on the wrong end of the fableís moral. These two segments are quite reminiscent of Saw (the devil even has rules!), which isnít wholly unexpected; after all, what is Saw but a grunged-out, gore-soaked riff on morality plays, anyway? The comparisons mostly stop at that point, though, as The Devilís Carnival isnít and gritty as much as itís a demented sideshow attraction thatís both whimsical and sinister all at once.
Speaking of Saw, you might recall that Sean Patrick Flannery was in the last one (which was the final one until it isnít), and Bousman has him playing a very Saw-like character here; in fact, heís the same sort of character Angus Macfayden played in Saw III. Like Macfayden, Flannery spends most of the time poking around the set, which is another house of personal horrors; heís in search of his son, but he winds up meeting the devil in an encounter that causes The Devilís Carnival to kind of peter out a bit. If not for a hint that the carnival might be setting up shop in a different location for a sequel, the film would have succumbed to the common anthology flaw of finishing on the least satisfying segment.
Instead, though, the film embraces the musical format and sends us off with a song. The songs here are different from Repoís--theyíre not as rock-tinged, nor are they immediately poppy or catchy (at least for now--it might take a revisit for them to sink in). There is a whole bunch of Ďem though, as the film stuffs about a dozen into its scant 55 minute runtime, which results in an appreciably eclectic assortment of tunes. Most are also accompanied by dazzling displays of choreography, and much of the cast--particularly Evigan, Lowndes, Alexa Vega, and Emilie Autumn--were born to star in something so theatrical. Often resembling a gaudy, baroque production thatís equal parts opera and burlesque stage show, The Devilís Carnival is distinctly designed, full of impressive make-up and creature effects; imagine the circus scene in Repo extended out to an hourís length, and youíll have a good idea as to what awaits in this circus of the grotesque that also boasts a cool retro quality in its costume designs.
It might be fair to say that The Devilís Carnival feels like sort of an experiment, something that can stand on its own but also sort of begs to be extended out to feature length. Still, itís a hell of an experiment, and thereís few guys out there taking this sort of risk. Kudos to Bousman for not only carving out one hell of a niche but also doing it on his own terms. Like Repo, The Devilís Carnival is balls-out, broad, a little campy, and embraces a cult mentality, falling right in line with both its predecessor and other roadshow horrors that have preceded it. Fittingly enough, Bousman turned The Devilís Carnival into a traveling circus of sorts earlier this year and presented it as the centerpiece to nearly two hour show that featured live acts and such. Obviously, you wonít get that at home, but the film is now on DVD and Blu-ray in a special ďRingmasterís EditionĒ (limited to an appropriate 6660 copies) that houses both formats; the high-def disc features a strong transfer that highlights the filmís vivid and lush color palette, while the lossless soundtrack immerses you in the showís atmosphere. The robust set of supplements does its best to replicate the traveling roadshow experience, as thereís features focusing on the tour itself, the filmís production, the make-up and effects, trailers, a collectable book with song lyrics, and three audio commentaries that feature just about every prominent cast member. You can pick up this version at the filmís official website, or you can head out to Hot Topic for a 2-disc CD/DVD combo pack. The Devilís Carnival certainly doesnít lack ambition in its attempt to blend its various formats, and the gamble pays off; bizarre, outlandish, stylish, and infectious, itís destined to become a cult attraction. Buy it!
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