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The Devil’s Carnival (Pt. 1)

Sorry, folks. I had tonight’s blog entry all picked out. I was all set to review The Omen, a film that I would have gotten to last year if only my rental disc hadn’t been so badly scratched. I set out to give the film another go this year… only to find at the last minute that I had accidentally picked out the ill-reviewed 2006 remake instead. Hell if that’s going to be my first exposure to the classic film.

Desperate for material, I went to see what horror films Hulu could offer me. Naturally, the classics were all exclusive to Hulu Plus, but there was one pleasant little surprise waiting for me in the free-to-view section.

For those who don’t recall, The Devil’s Carnival is an indie rock opera short film created by Darren Lynn Bousman and Terrence Zdunich, also known as two of the main creative forces behind Repo! The Genetic Opera. The two of them actually came through Portland last May, hosting a one-night-only screening of their new work. The ticket price was higher than I was willing to pay, so I saw Dark Shadows instead. It was a mistake that I may now rectify, thanks to the wonders of Hulu.

To start with, The Devil’s Carnival is actually a movie in three hour-long parts. A miniseries, if you will. Only the first part has been completed so far, though part two is reportedly set to begin production in the next few months.

Episode 1 is comprised of three stories, each one centered around a different main character. The first is John (Sean Patrick Flanery), who commits suicide after the death of his son. The second is Tamara (Jessica Lowndes), who’s killed by her abusive boyfriend while trying to leave him. The third is Ms. Merrywood (Briana Evigan), a thief who dies in a police shootout.

After dying, our three main characters go (where else?) to Hell. But this isn’t quite the Hell that Dante wrote about. No, Hell in this film has been reimagined as a demented kind of circus. The demons in this case are various clowns, dancers, jugglers, fire-eaters, daredevils, and so on. Our protagonists are all given tickets to this twisted carnival, completely unaware that they’re part of the act.

As explained to us in the film’s title song, each of the episode’s three stories are loosely modeled after children’s tales (Aesop’s Fables, more specifically). John is acting out “The Devil and his Due,” Tamara is playing “The Scorpion and the Frog,” and Merrywood is “The Dog and its Reflection.” How these stories end, we’re told, depends on how our protagonists play their parts.

Something else to note is that these fables — like so many children’s stories of old — are morality plays. They were designed to teach lessons to their audience. And generally, such stories do this by making their main characters suffer. Remember that in this case, the main characters are played by the movie’s protagonists.

All three of our main characters are made to suffer in this movie. Merrywood suffers for her greed, Tamara suffers for her easy trust in handsome men, and poor John suffers for his crippling inability to let go. The demons punish these characters by turning their own vices and flaws against them, and the demons take great delight in doing so. After all, the demons themselves are a bunch of evil clowns.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the film makes use of children’s stories, carnivals, and clowns. Various games and nursery rhymes are also used as the movie continues. The perverted and twisted use of innocent childhood iconography is a recurring trend in this movie, with results that are sufficiently creepy and scary. In fact, Repo! briefly did something similar, by way of the singsong nursery rhyme chorus in “Zydrate Anatomy.”

Really, anyone remotely familiar with Repo! will have no problem recognizing that these two films were made by the same people. They both have a very distinctive grungy look, as if most of the film’s production budget went to fuel the filmmakers’ acid habits. The only real difference is that Repo! was science fiction and this film is a straight-up fantasy, which means that any semblance of logic or restraint has gone right out the window. Then again, this total lack of inhibition works in the movie’s favor. After all, this movie tries to deal with some very mature subject matter in a shocking manner, and as I’m so fond of pointing out, shock isn’t something that one does halfway.

Then again, the filmmakers may have taken this “no holds barred” approach to filmmaking a little too far. The editing in this film is remarkably bad, with continuity errors so blatant that they must have been intentional. The musical numbers in particular have a kind of “music video” presentation, as different scenes weave into each other with no rhyme or reason to be seen. I get what the filmmakers were trying to do, but I don’t really care for it.

Speaking of the music, I personally thought it was rather hit-and-miss. A few of the songs are entertaining, to be sure, but none of them were half as catchy or energetic as the best of the Genetic Opera’s soundtrack. Quite a few of the songs seemed quite padded out as well, which is strange to say, given the film’s brief running time. With all of that said, the songs and their accompanying visuals were all suitably freaky.

At this point, it should be little surprise that several Repo! alumni found their way into the cast. Bill Moseley and Alexa Vega appear as two of the various demons, and they of course get very prominent placement in the musical numbers. Paul Sorvino is also on hand, briefly appearing as God. Last but not least, Zdunich plays Lucifer himself. However, the Devil in this film appears as your typical horned and red-skinned monster, without any sign of the circus motif seen everywhere else in the film. Quite a missed opportunity, in my opinion.

Though Lucifer is more or less our emcee for the movie, he’s heavily assisted by the Ticket-Keeper (Dayton Callie), who enforces the carnival’s six hundred and sixty-six rules. Other notable demons include the Painted Lady (Emilie August), The Twin (Nivek Ogre, another Repo! alumnus), the Scorpion (Marc Senter), and a hobo clown (Ivan Moody). There’s also Tillman Norsworthy, who plays John’s poor lost son.

Getting back to our protagonists, I suppose that they were played about as well as could be expected. They’re all rather sadly one-dimensional, but I think that’s sort of the point. Remember, the film was clearly intended to present three NSFW reimaginings of classic fairy tales, and fairy tale characters were never meant to be sympathetic. They were intended to be vehicles for the fables’ intended messages, nothing more. We’re not supposed to cry when the main characters suffer, we’re supposed to be satisfied with the knowledge that they behaved stupidly and got what they deserved for it.

So, if this film’s narrative is basically comprised of existing fables, the characters aren’t sympathetic, and the music averages on mediocre, where’s the point in watching? The answer to that is simple: The presentation. The fables are all reinterpreted with remarkable creativity, which makes the stories and their morals seem fresh again. The demons are wonderfully entertaining to watch, and their wicked sense of glee is alarmingly infectious. The world of the carnival is brought to vivid life, powered by top-notch production design and the film’s beautifully grungy aesthetic.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that your enjoyment of The Devil’s Carnival will depend heavily on your enjoyment of Repo! The Genetic Opera. If you thought that film was overly pretentious, trying to be weird purely for the sake of it, you’ll probably feel the same way about this one. If, however, you loved that film for its abundant creativity and sheer ballsiness, you’ll find more to like here.

And if you haven’t seen either one, get on that. Whether you like them or hate them, the Bousman/Zdunich collaborations are so unique and so boldly made that they certainly deserve a chance. For my part, I look forward to The Devil’s Carnival, Episode 2 with a very open mind.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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