A while ago now, we saw the release of a very different type of musical. In 2008, the dark shadow of Repo! The Genetic Opera fell across the land – unfortunately it was so shadowy and dark that it was not seen by that many people. This is a great shame.
Repo! written by Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith, and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, traded on the unique selling point of being a rock opera with close blood ties to the Saw franchise. The result was refreshing; all the emotional intensity you would expect from any sing-your-guts-out musical, punctuated by moments where people actually were having their guts pulled out by the nightmarish figure of the ‘Repo Man’. Even though the musical featured established stars of stage and screen such as Sarah Brightman, Anthony Head and Paul Sorvino, it never feels ‘safe’. The filmmakers never err on the side of caution; the audience are asked to make a lot of imaginative leaps head first into a dystopian society where people are at risk of having their brand new organs repossessed if they can’t keep up their payments. With the exception of some understandable low-budget moments, it doesn’t feel like any compromises have been made. I have a great fondness for Repo (I even bought the soundtrack) and it has gradually built up a dedicated cult following.
It was with great interest therefore that I heard about Zdunich and Bousman’s latest film, The Devil’s Carnival (2012). This new venture is based on the notion that hell is within a circus tent and the devil has at his disposal a retinue of performers who he can command to re-enact the sins of new inmates, in order to show them the error of their ways. The literary nerd in me loved the repurposed, spirited ‘upcycling’ of Aesop’s fables as a means of framing their backstories.
The central three sinners are John (Sean Patrick Flanery of Young Indiana Jones fame), who cannot let go of his grief and despair, Ms Merrywood (Briana Evigan, with a strangely appropriate background in both dance and teen horror flicks) who is constantly distracted by material wealth, and Tamara (Jessica Lowndes, seen most recently alongside Will Ferrell in A Deadly Adoption) who foolishly allows herself to be hurt by the wrong kinds of men. I don’t think the film is driving at a specific message; I feel it’s just revelling in the joy of being dark, but the strong moralitic tone created by the use of Aesop’s fables does clash with the film’s more sadistic side.
There’s nothing particularly original about this film (less so than Repo! anyhow). The aesthetic is the old menace behind a smile, circus freak show sort of vibe, but it is enthusiastically maniacal and lovingly executed. The fact that several of the cast members from Repo! have reappeared in this second foray is always nice to see, even when they all have arguably less to do in this film – but then, the film isn’t even an hour long, so everyone has less to do.
The horror in The Devil’s Carnival is also not as strong as in its predecessor. There are scenes which seem horrific because they are treated in a manner which juxtaposes their unpleasantness; for example suicide is at times treated in quite a light-hearted manner. There is also a scene where a woman is whipped, but contrary to what you would expect from the director of Saw II, III and IV, there is not a single visible drop of blood. Instead of the gore, this film seems to take greater pleasure the spectacle of cheap fairgrounds which have been scaring us all silly since we were very, very small.
It does feel at times as if cast members are in slightly different movies to one another. The film features much loved industrial-rock music goddess Emile Autumn (just listen to the Opheliac album, it is truly sublime), who was apparently pestered to take the part of the Painted Doll by the film’s creators. Autumn’s character doesn’t speak, but delivers one song, ‘Prick! Goes the Scorpion’s tail’ in her usual trademark style. Autumn’s performances essentially echo her stage show. Sean Patrick Flanery at times really ‘goes for it’ emotionally (his performance reminded me of a slightly less successful version of Anthony Head’s performance in Repo), while writer Zdunich plays the devil himself as a calculated, throne-dwelling arch villain. There is an unbalancing swing between on the one hand; anarchic little moments of tongue in cheek horror, cartoonish sound effects and caricature-style costumes which distance us from the central characters – and on the other hand, more dramatic scenes where we are supposed to feel empathy for their surreal situation. All this in an hour made the changing tone a little difficult to keep up with.
The Devil’s Carnival manages to pack in no less than twelve songs, but again the genre and feel of these can vary, so as a viewer you are always on your toes – maybe this is the intention. Sometimes, the cuts and edits of the musical sections, combined with the obvious low budget of the film and the massive time constraints under which it was filmed, can enforce the feel of a hastily put together music video. Personally, I would have liked to see fewer songs, in order that they feel more fully formed; I didn’t think many of them stood up to the Repo soundtrack. My favourite song, ‘In all my dreams I drown’ was in fact cut from the film, but is played in full (including visuals) during the end credits. Even this decision however feels a little odd, as if the clip was shoved into the credits at a random moment and in a rather slapdash positioning on the screen as the credits roll beside it.
At worst; The Devil’s Carnival is a confusing experiment; too short and perhaps a little over-indulgent. At best; it’s brash, brazen and dare I say a little Buffy-esque.
The second instalment of The Devil’s Carnival (‘Alleluia!’) will be a little longer and hopefully will develop some of the characters we have already been introduced to. The cast list is a very interesting read; featuring Adam Pascal (hardly recognisable without the 90s Bon Jovi hair he sports in Rent), Barry Bostwick (infamous as Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Ted Neely (most famous for his screaming vocals as Jesus in the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar). As usual, it seems Terrance Zdunich and Darren Lynn Bousman will manage to widen their fan base with inspired casting choices, and are already managing to cause a certain degree of hype online. What can I say? I want to see it. My only concern is that it might take a very long time for me to get hold of it in the U.K.