The Devil's Carnival Review
Byon Apr 30, 2012
Let me tell you a tale for a penny,
One that you cannot hear anywhere else,
Not anywhere else
I heard from a birdy, it doesn’t end purddy, it doesn’t end well
No, it never ends well…
Before the Saw films descended into a series of obligatory, uninspired October releases, director Darren Lynn Bousman – the guiding voice behind the second, third and fourth chapters – felt like perhaps the biggest fence-sitter in the genre. On the one hand, Bousman was crafting clever, confident, visceral sequels with flourishes of creativity that signaled something far greater than simply a work-for-hire filmmaker. On the other hand, Bousman’s films rambled forward on a wave of manic and often uncontrolled energy, never missing the opportunity to cut, flash, clamor and edit at the expense of visual atmosphere and mannered pacing. But with each successive film, Bousman has further refined his visual voice, embracing a more painterly technique, adopting smoother, more graceful camera movements, utilizing moments of style as a scalpel, slicing, rather than some smashing, cinematic sledgehammer.
The problem, of course, is that you probably haven’t noticed.
Bousman’s follow-up to the Saw series, Repo the Genetic Opera – a gothic, post-industrial homage to the Rocky Horror musical set – was, at best, an ambitious failure, the kind of niche experiment that landed the film on a scant ten screens theatrically. Impressively undeterred, Bousman and co-creator Terrance Zdunich – who’d worked on Repo from its inception as a black-box stageplay – took their show on the road, developing a rabid cult following for a bold, bizarre – and most importantly, ballsy – film that the studio system had utterly ignored.
His next two movies – a remake of the grindhouse flick Mother’s Day and the apocalyptic 11-11-11 – ultimately fell victim to the inside-baseball of distribution hell, shambling quietly to DVD and VOD, as invisible as ghosts, despite illustrating Bousman’s continued growth as a quality filmmaker eluded by that one, break-out hit. A devil not paid his due…
All of which sets the stage for The Devil’s Carnival, the kind of triumphant middle finger of a director who, if not shown the door by the finely-suited Hollywood machine, is content to smash through the window with a few thousand leather-clad friends and rob the place blind.
Reteaming with Zdunich, Bousman has crafted this 55-minute oddball, whackadoo anti-film – not a feature, not a short, not-ready-for-primetime television – that fearlessly succeeds where Repo had once over-ambitiously stumbled. The Devil’s Carnival is a mature, involving, masterfully constructed piece of musical filmmaking that neither pays homage nor aspires to the grand insanity of Gilliam films or Rocky Horror sing-a-longs, but sets itself confidently at the table beside them.
The story of three sinners who meet their ends only to find themselves in the literal circus of Hell, Carnival draws its inspiration mainly from Aesop’s Fables, weaving a trio of stylized morality tales with a Broadway-quality assortment of musical numbers. Sean Patrick Flanery plays John, a father who’s journeyed into the afterlife in search of his deceased child; Briana Evigan plays the greedy, thieving Ms. Merrywood and Jessica Lowndes plays the doo-wop inspired, unlucky-in-love Tamara. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the carnival’s demonic freakshow – the Hobo Clown, the Scorpion, the Painted Doll and Zdunich himself as the storyteller, Lucifer.
Visually, the limitations of such a punk-rock endeavor have forced Bousman to fill a few small spaces with an infinite amount of detail. The sets here are brilliantly conceived and beautifully lit, cluttered with a rich array of design elements to draw the eye and fill the frame. The costumes and make-up offer a clever, Hellish play on circus archetypes that feels wholly organic and original; not the kind of low-rent, Hot Topic wardrobe of a less inspired, goth-rock reach-around.
Musically, Zdunich, his writing partner Saar Hendelman, and music producer Joe Bishara have created a tremendously sophisticated soundtrack, framing an evocative, staccato lyricism with brooding and occasionally clamorous arrangements of circus-themed instrumentation. Granted, this isn’t pop-radio, quick-fix ear candy – a calculated risk in an age where everything must be instantaneously catchy – but the twelve tracks recorded for the film are the complex, deeply layered work of an artist whose black-and-crimson sensibilities belong somewhere on the Great White Way.
Zdunich’s illustrative lyrics on tracks like “Beautiful Stranger,” “In All My Dreams I Drown” and the heart-wrenchingly macabre “Grief” are off-set by more rambunctious, up-tempo, grin-inducing numbers like “A Penny for a Tale” and “Grace for Sale.” All while Bousman brings just the right amount of visual energy to their staging, slowing down and speeding up as serves the mood.
That said, there are certainly moments here that prove more engaging than others, and the fact that the film is intended as one part of a larger whole makes the entire affair feel a bit incomplete. But with no theatrical release, Bousman and Zdunich are taking The Devil’s Carnival on a 31-city road tour, providing the kind of tactile carnivalia of an experience that cannot be downloaded, e-mailed, pirated or torrented. If you have the ability to watch the film alongside costumed fans in the company of the writer and director, it’s certainly the kind of personal presentation that Hollywood has ceased to deliver in the age of pre-packaged spectacles.
The Devil’s Carnival is absolutely a love-it-or-hate-it film, a gutsy experiment, but it’s the kind of head-first, Geronimo filmmaking that’s worth loving or hating if only for the heated conversation to follow. If you're a fan of dark fairy tales, gothic musicals, or simply just a lover of clever, genre aesthetics, there's a lot to love here. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Just be sure to follow each of Hell's 666 rules...