The Devil’s Carnival is the new film from Darren Lynn Bousman the director of Saw II, III, and IV, three films that were, in my opinion, so-so at best. He followed those up with the atrociously misguided Repo: The Genetic Opera, the bland remake of Mother’s Day, and the just okay horror film The Barrens. Needless to say, I am not the President of Mr. Bousman’s fan club. However, with his new film, I am starting to take notice.
The Devil’s Carnival is a film to experience. It is a bizarre, satanic, musical, mind trip into the dark corners of Hell; a horror filled opera.
It tells the stories, based on Aesop’s Fables, of three damned souls, a suicidal father grieving for his dead son (Sean Patrick Flannery), a thief who is killed by police (Briana Evigan), and a teen killed by her boyfriend (Jessica Loundes). They are all implied to have died and find themselves awaking in Hell at the titular carnival. There they meet the ticket keeper, played by the wonderful character actor Dayton Callie, who tells the three protagonists the rules, there are 666, and the consequences of breaking them.
The cast is uniformly good and we meet quite the array a characters such as The Scorpion, The Magician, The Hobo Clown, and the most twistedly delicious one of them all, The Painted Lady. She is played by Emilie Autumn in a creepily nuanced performance. She is tremendously entertaining in her small role. Paul Sorvino plays God in the film’s bookend scenes. He is shown painting dolls and being dissatisfied with some of his negative creations, but has no dialogue. The great horror mainstay actor Bill Mosely is almost wasted in a small role as The Magician who is disappointed to find that he will not be participating in the carnival this time due to the fact that The Devil himself will make an appearance. The Devil, played by the co-writer Terrence Zdunich, is a great character. His look rivals the great make-up work in Ridley Scott’s underappreciated classic film Legend. The Devil is shown telling the story of Aesop’s fables and relating the appropriate ones to the three main characters. Zdunich underplays the role nicely, as many actors who portray Lucifer tend to go over the top. For this film, his choice to just sit and use his face does wonders and gives him an almost human quality.
This is a musical, perhaps an opera, and the songs are outstanding. I confess I didn’t have high hopes for it, as I did not enjoy the music in Bousman’s Repo: The Genetic Opera. I was pleasantly surprised with the songs in this film and even purchased the soundtrack. The title song is sung by all of the carnies and freaks and it is fine but the music really begins to shine with the Ticket Man singing the song about the rules of the carnival, “666”. The songs that pepper the rest of the film are, most of the time, Broadway level fantastic with the standout number, “Prick Goes the Scorpion’s Tail” being performed by Emilie Autumn. There is a beautiful duet between The Devil and the character played by Jessica Loundes entitled “In All My Dreams I Drown” played during the closing credits that is hauntingly beautiful. At times, the musical styling can be compared to Danny Elfman’s brilliant score for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas. The music here is that good!
There are no real horror moments in the film; no scenes of brutal killing (okay one, but it is played with dark humor and happens during a musical number) nor ghostly haunting, however there is real horror atmosphere from the first moment until the last. The carnival set design falls somewhere between Fellini and Rob Zombie and is masterfully macabre. Bousman has always had good lighting ideas and knows how to mix dark colors but in this film it all comes together perfectly. Here he has created a twisted visual feast for our eyes to devour.
The film is a first chapter in what promises to be a continuing tale. The director financed the film himself and took it on the road showing it at small movie houses and, sometimes, outside on a portable screen. The fan reaction was extremely positive and Bousman promises to continue the story of his demonic creation.
I am excited to see where he takes the films and, as long as he keeps up with the great ideas he put into this one, I feel this will be a fantastic saga to experience with each new chapter.