DIRECTED BY: Darren Lynn Bousman
FEATURING: Terrance Zdunich, Sean Patrick Flanery, Briana Evigan, Jessica Lowndes, Dayton Callie
PLOT: A suicide, a jewel thief, and a thug’s girlfriend die and find themselves at an afterlife circus run by the Devil; he reads the stories of their sins retold as fables, which they re-enact to musical accompaniment supplied by carnies.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Devil’s Carnival is a lot like director Darren Lynn Bousman’s previous horror musical effort, Repo: The Genetic Opera, only on a smaller scale. If that one didn’t make it onto the List, then logically this one shouldn’t, either.
COMMENTS: Hell is eternal musical theater! I knew it! The Devil’s Carnival looks like refugees from a Fellini circus took over unused sets from Moulin Rouge. Hell’s color scheme is candy apple red and hot dog mustard yellow, and all the demons have mime-white faces with black and red designs equally inspired by medieval harlequins and KISS. The plot to this musical is delightfully warped, in more ways than one. It involves suicide, thievery, and women in masochistic relationships, but it also benefits from a wild narrative that veers between reality, fantasy, and song and dance numbers at a whim. Fittingly, none of the denizens of the carnival seem the slightest bit surprised by any of it; the three hellbound souls receiving their poetic punishments wonder why they’re suddenly at a state fair designed by David Lynch for all of five seconds before they start accepting the dream at face value. I always like it when a movie script takes on too much and mixes its metaphors. Carnival starts off as Dante by way of Cirque du Soleil, then, one-third of the way in, after each of the three stories is already in progress, the Devil starts reading a book of Aesop’s fables which illustrate the sins (adding to the confusion, the last section, “The Devil’s Due,” doesn’t even refer to Aesop—the quote’s from from Shakespeare and the plot’s from nowhere in particular). Along with the three fables, we also get a backstage peek at the Devil’s lieutenant casting the night’s morality plays and a subplot about the Lucifer-God rivalry, all shoehorned in around a dozen songs in a movie that’s only an hour long. The script’s a mess, but I don’t mean that as a criticism: the overabundance of ideas and references in The Devil’s Carnival gives the entire enterprise a loose and crazy feeling that’s appropriate and appealing. The costume and set design is superlative, and the demonic hoofers—the Hobo Clown, the Painted Doll, and plastic-haired greaser Scorpion—are all a morbid hoot. Where The Devil’s Carnival loses me is with the songs. They are impressively staged and consistently performed in a Weimar-era German cabaret style. The Hobo Clown, ragged hat extended for alms, croons a demented doggerel silhouetted by footlights while a topless woman is whipped in the background (like all of Carnival, this is a surprisingly PG-13 rendition of some very dark material). But the melodies, while appropriately carnivalesque, aren’t memorable, and the libretto can’t match the ambition of the mise-en-scene. There’s too much repetition, and more than once the lyrics fall back on the cheap trick of incorporating children’s nursery rhymes to cop a little irony. Songs like “Kiss the Girls,” with a man menaced by a gang of sexy clowns in Bozo’s of Hollywood lingerie, look great, but make little sense. The lip-syncing is also frequently off, providing another distraction. Ivan L. Moody, a veteran of several minor metal bands with a surprisingly melodious baritone, gives the best performance; but the best conceived number is “Prick,” a love badly sung by a painted waif to a bullfrog that makes clever use of the double meaning in the title. Still, there is nothing here that you’d want to put on your I-Pod (Repo cultists, many of whom bought this soundtrack on the release date without having heard a note, may naturally disagree). Divorced from their presentations, the songs are all competent but forgettable, and, like its predecessor Genetic Opera, it’s that lack of memorable tunes that keeps The Devil’s Carnival from making the leap to the next artistic level. If Bousman could just borrow the talents of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or even Richard O’Brien, for just a week sometime, he might make something really magical. The film is part of a planned series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Carnival may not have blown me away, but the best compliment I can give it as that it has me looking forward to the next installment—and, it makes me consider looking backward to reassess Repo.
While Bousman continues to make horror movies like Mother’s Day within the Hollywood system, The Devil’s Carnival cements his credibility as a cult filmmaker and suggests he’s dedicated to the more interesting, less-marketable horror-musical concept. The mid-range production values, cable TV-friendly naughtiness, cliffhanger ending and hour-long length of Carnival make it look like a pilot for an HBO series, although there’s no evidence it was ever intended for the small screen. The marketing of the film, which was self-financed by Bousman and partner Terrance Zdunich (who wrote the script and plays the Devil), is innovative: a VOD/Netflix streaming release, supplemented by a collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray (limited to 6660 copies) and a “carnival road tour.” Hopefully this nontraditional distribution strategy will work and allow the pair to retain their artistic independence by selling directly to the fans.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Dismiss Repo and Carnival as weird musicals for weird people if you like, but there’s always room for a filmmaker who treats his ticket-buyers well and delivers something sort of … unsafe.”–Scott Weinberg, FearNet (contemporaneous)