“Step right in, ladies and gentlemen. Step right in. No, no, no — don’t be afraid to bring the children. We have special treats for children. Just five tickets to see the world’s only living two-headed giraffe. He won’t be alive much longer. Or see the Siamese twins wiggle and swim in their big blue bottle. Don’t be afraid. They can’t get out. See Gilda the bearded giantess waltz with Bobo the dwarf! Or simply try your luck at…try your luck at…try your luck at…try your luck at…”
— Mr. Blood
I admit it. I have a tendency toward hyperbole. I get caught up in the moment, and tend to overstate my enthusiasm. I recognize this as a fault of mine, so it is with this present in my conscious mind telling me that I must avoid blowing things out of proportion that I share this bit of info with you, dear reader…
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.
I have no idea where it came from. The film’s website doesn’t offer much in the way of production history, aside from the fact that it was distributed on the Southern drive-in circuit (MAN, I wish this had played at the Hi-Way and that I could’ve caught it at some point…then again, I was three at the time, so maybe it wouldn’t have worked out) and was considered lost for years until a print was found in an attic and taken to Zoetrope Studios (!!!) where it was mastered for DVD release.
Its low-budget origins and rough-around-the-edges appearance may give you the impression that this is another “so bad it’s good” drive-in offering, but don’t be deceived. This is a film that knows what it’s doing, and does it with a good deal of panache. I can’t imagine what initial audiences made of it — it’s a hell of a lot closer to Eraserhead than Macon County Line, so the drive-in circuit was probably not the best place for this to land. I can tell you what my reaction was, though: this film probably captures the feeling of a nightmare better than any other film I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot of movies that people consider “nightmarish” or “dreamlike”. It’s almost as if the film isn’t really trying to aim for this effect, either.
Let me give you a rundown of what happens in the first 30 minutes or so…The first shot we see is of a cartoonish display statue of a policeman with his arm extended in the “halt” position, with a whistle blaring. This should be a warning to all involved. We’re immediately taken to a gypsy psychic’s reading room, which is spinning around on its center axis (and it’s not the camera that’s moving — it’s either the floor or the walls; our perspective doesn’t allow us to see precisely what it is that’s moving in relation to the other, but it’s clearly not just a perspective trick), as the psychic (played by a man in drag) offers up a doom-filled reading for a new female employee of the carnival. We jump outside to see the girl’s parents being escorted around by Mr. Blood, who is an assistant to Malatesta, the carnival’s owner. We’re introduced to the ubiquitous Mr. Bean, who pops up in different places for no good reason. (LOTS of things happen in this movie for seemingly no good reason.) We’re introduced to the Davis family, and given another couple rounds of gender confusion: after the drag queen psychic, we’re told that the Davises have a son; the child is instead a daughter. When the daughter demands a “dead chicken” (one of the rubber chickens used as a prize in the Norris’ shooting gallery), Vena Norris’ new male acquaintance Kit offers the daughter one; the mother replies “look at what the nice lady has for you!” Then, Kit gives the Davis family a complimentary ride on the Tunnel of Love (which he operates), and nobody comes out. He goes inside to find an incredibly bizarre set design which seems to be primarily constructed out of bubble wrap, the father’s glasses, and a good amount of blood. BANG, we’re in the Norris’ trailer, where Mr. Blood explains that he is on a restricted diet and has been cheating death because of it, and after he leaves, we find out that the Norrises are there to…well…find someone. We’re not entirely sure why they’re there. Are they there to prevent something from happening? To seek revenge because of something that *has* happened? We just don’t know. Just as in dreams, motivations are in flux, and adapt as new elements arrive. Just go with the flow. Two drunken revelers appear on the scene (and they just might be the only customers this carnival has ever had, even though it obviously seems to be after business hours), and one loses his head on the roller coaster operated by Mr. Bean. His partner seeks answers from Mr. Blood, and is directed to the gray-faced groundskeeper, “Sticker,” who kills him. His body is delivered to a bunch of ghouls via some insane process of transport (more bubble wrap is involved), where they feast upon his flesh while being serenaded by a trio of ghouls singing a lullaby.
Do you see what I’m getting at? I can’t really explain what *happens* in the movie any more than I can explain what happens in David Lynch’s most abstract works and expect to have my description make linear sense. Just like in dreams, linear storytelling isn’t important. Things just happen, details are fixated upon almost arbitrarily. A dream sequence begins but does not end so that you’d notice. People on the run take bizarre detours through carousels or take random roller coaster rides. Sets are constructed out of junked Volkswagen Beetles and hot dog wrappers. Hervé Villechaize appears to offer dire warnings and guidance, but we don’t know whom he serves or why. A huge mass of ghouls watches silent movies somewhere in the carnival. Mr. Blood might be a vampire, or he might just think he’s a vampire, or he might just be playing the part of a vampire; we’re not sure. Characters appear and disappear from the story with no warning. Some scenes are drenched in a milky haze, while others are crisp and clear, so it’s impossible to tell via visual clues what might be real or not; it’s never clear if what we’re seeing happen is real or imagined, or if there’s any difference whatsoever.
And what’s more is that the film contains some of the most striking and inventive visuals you’d ever expect out of a horror movie with such an obviously low budget. Director Christopher Speeth delivers a remarkably accomplished-looking feature film (as far as I can tell, it’s his only feature-length work, which is a crying shame). The set design is incredible, the shots are consistently inventive, and the SOUNDTRACK…Created by Dr. Sheridan Speeth (I have no idea what relation he might be), it successfully creates an aura of foreboding and a sense of creeping dread, while also escalating the sense of disorientation brought about by the bizarre visuals.
I can’t recommend this movie higher. I’ve watched it five times in the past three weeks, and I’m still finding new aspects of it to appreciate. MAN, I wish I had decent computer software that’d allow me to do some screen captures of this thing. This would read so much better with visual accompaniment. You’ll just have to buy your own copy. It’s available at Amazon, Xploited Cinema, and Diabolik DVD.Get to it!!!