Hola all. Massawyrm here.
If THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW was the movie REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA really wanted so terribly to be, then THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL is the very sort of film that THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW desperately aspired and failed to become. Unlike its campy, absurd predecessors, THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL isn’t a pastiche of styles, music and pop culture stitched together to create an aesthetic hoping to be art. It *is* art. Profound, inspired, blood-soaked, sweat stained art. It is at once a film drenched in its own, carnie worshiping, Jim Rose Circus by-way-of Tom Waits SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES sensibilities, and steeped in a rich, literate, intellectual structure that only opens its mouth when it has something important to say.
It is an allegory. A fantasy. A fable. It is also one of the single greatest Devil-centric stories ever told, and one of only a few such tales that aspires to make the devil out to be more than a mere tempter or villain. It gives him a soul. And in the final few moments of this film, the Devil does something so incredibly interesting, that it changes the rules about how such stories can even be told.
After three senseless deaths, the souls of the deceased find themselves faced with the bizarre, unkind performance of the Devil’s Carnival – each character playing out their clichéd life and death in the form of an Aesop’s Fable. But as the performances of the fables unravel before us, we see a deeper, richer tale unfold – one in which the Carnival’s master tries to reconcile his position in a cruel, unforgiving universe.
It is the William S. Burroughs story Uncle Bill never wrote, told with all the elegant fanciful style and care for the human condition as a Neil Gaiman tale. And it is far and away the single best thing Darren Lynn Bousman has ever made.
How I came to find myself purchasing a ticket to this particular carnival is almost as interesting a story as the one it had to tell. A few years back, Bousman brought his film MOTHER’S DAY to the Alamo Drafthouse for Fantastic Fest, content that it would be the screening that would launch his first big, non-SAW hit. Instead, it would prove to be the screening that would define him. Half of the audience celebrated the film as a brutal, well-crafted genre surprise; the other half of us reviled it. His reaction was not to blast or turn a blind eye to his critics. Instead he became introspective. He realized that he would never be a Tarantino or a Scorsese, lauded with almost universal praise. Instead, he was a divisive filmmaker who rarely made films people shrugged at – making only films one loved with all their heart or loathed with unbridled hatred.
And he decided he was okay with that. He wrote a wonderful blog post laying bare the kind of soul artists rarely show in this day and age, citing fairly both positive and negative critics, and embracing his lot in life. In the subsequent 18 months he would begin writing blogs and tweeting thoughts not of a cloistered Hollywood type trying to protect a career, but instead of a man who saw the writing on the wall, realized that Hollywood was never going to let him make the movies he REALLY wanted to make, and set out to warn other artists of the great struggle trying to make art in a profit driven industry.
And until I bought a ticket to the carnival, I had no idea what kind of movies Bouseman really wanted to make. Turns out he wants to make musicals. The kind of musicals Terry Gilliam would make – were he so inclined. And knowing that no studio in their right mind would ever fund such an endeavor, he cobbled together a small budget, called in every favor he could, and set out to make the very best movie of his career under conditions that would force him to make no compromises while simultaneously leaving no room for error.
If he failed, this would be the end. It just might well have been the proof in the pudding that he was destined to be nothing more than a mediocre filmmaker remaking horror franchises for studios. But that’s not what it was; that’s not what it was at all. It would prove instead to be the first truly great film from a fascinating artist struggling for several years to find his voice. Now that he’s found it, I want very much to see him express it time and again.
This movie is badass. Is it a cult movie? Yes. Very much so. But not because it, like so many cult films, is trying to be; it is a cult film because there is no other way to otherwise tell this story and do it justice. It is a film that never spoon feeds its audience, always asking the viewer to keep up, pay attention, listen close to the words. THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL doesn’t want to hold your hand. Bousman decided that since he couldn’t please everyone, he would try only to please the people who loved his work. So he made a movie for them. And they’re a literary crowd. They’re fantasists. And they love dark, brooding tales and tragedies.
By narrowing the band of the kind of film he wanted to make, he instead found a film that had much broader appeal amongst those who otherwise didn’t care for his work. Doubt it? Google my reviews for SAW 2. And REPO. And MOTHER’S DAY. I assure you they weren’t kind. I bought my ticket to the carnival because I wanted to support a filmmaker with a big pair of balls who was willing to put them out on the block and smile if I chose to chop them off. I wanted to see what a film by a filmmaker who had everything in the world to prove, but was fearless about the outcome, looked like. In truth, while I wanted to love it – as I want to love every film I walk into – I fully expected to dislike or even loathe it.
Instead I fell deeply, madly, hopelessly in love with it.
Written and composed by Terrance Zdunich (along with Saar Hendelman), the movie is a smart, cleverly crafted experience that pairs words and instruments perfectly with its story. In a stroke of mad genius, Zdunich chose to compose entirely with instruments available to carnies – a trumpet, trombone, tuba, violins, light percussion, piano, accordion, viola, cello and a banjo. The result is a soundtrack that feels entirely organic. There is no mishmash or culture clash to this film. It looks and feels and sounds like a timeless carnival in hell, one that could be happening fifty years ago or fifty years from now. THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL never dates itself with gimmicks or winks at the audience. It merely tells a great story, and does so in a manner that can only be described as unique.
Right now this film has no distribution – they haven’t really sought any. This is about artists proving themselves. So they’ve taken their show on the road. 40 cities – with 31 still left to go as of this writing. Each show has its own carnival-like atmosphere, with local carnie acts and burlesque dancers entertaining the crowd along with a REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA making-of Doc/music video and Q&A by the cast and crew. The tickets are a little pricier than normal, but prove well worth the extra cash.
This is the type of movie and experience we geeks suit up for. This is what we live for. You want something different? You want to see someone put themselves out there fully prepared for you to hate it? Want to see something you’ve never quite seen before? Buy a ticket to THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL and see if it doesn’t win you over like it did me.
I love this film. See it big and see it as an event.
Until next time friends,
C. Robert Cargill