Saturday 3 November 2012

The Devil's Carnival (2012)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Stars: Terrance Zdunich, Sean Patrick Flanery, Briana Evigan and Jessica Lowndes

I have to admit I hold a soft spot for Repo! The Genetic Opera. It's far from flawless and I'm not a particular fan of musicals, but it oozed with both style and energy and it became that rare entity, a film utterly different from anything around it that found a firm place in fandom. The creators of the film, Darren Lynn Bousman and Terrance Zdunich, are gentlemen and they worked very hard on the road to promote their film, bringing out a number of their stars and building a real event. I watched it grow as a phenomenon. The first time I saw it was the best, late enough that the buzz had built and the place was sold out but early enough that the shadowcasting brigade hadn't got their claws into it yet. That meant I could see and hear everything, even from a couch jammed in against the back wall of the theatre. Second time, the screen was often annoyingly obscured by costumed amateurs. Third time, the film was forgotten in the party atmosphere. Not my scene.

So I was naturally interested when teasers started to appear online for The Devil's Carnival, an unrelated project but something surely in the same vein, given that it sported the same names, down to a good proportion of the cast and crew. It had solid promise, given that the ground was already broken and the fanbase built and because inspiring new names like Emilie Autumn were attached. Yet Bousman and Zdunich weren't able to finance everything they wanted, so the half million spent went on a mere third of the film, just episode one of three, with the remaining parts written but not shot and heavily reliant on the success of this beginning. That's only one reason why we didn't go to see this one in the theatres. Reports from relatives who did suggested that it wasn't up to the quality of its predecessor and, finally catching up on Netflix, I can concur. It all looks great on paper, and it succeeds in some regards, but it's disappointing overall.

One success is the concept, though with a major caveat. Zdunich as Lucifer is obvious casting and the Devil's Carnival is his domain. It looks roughly as you might expect from the name, with no hint of a lake of fire but an agreeable circus atmosphere. Into this setting comes a trio of the newly deceased, each to play an unwitting star role in an adaptation of a fable from Aesop, as this Lucifer is something of an impresario. The caveat is that these two ideas are uncomfortable partners. Fables speak to life lessons, yet Hell speaks to sins and the two rarely cross paths, as much that might be unwise in a fable wouldn't necessarily suggest a path to eternal damnation. Only Ms Merrywood, a petty thief presumably gunned down by the cops, really fits both sides of the coin, while John, a grief stricken father, and Tamara, a gullible teen, seem out of place down below. They fit well with Aesop but not with Hell, notably lessening the concept's impact.
Bousman and Zdunich performed a number of coups in manoeuvering all these stars into the same place for a mere seven days of filming. Many come from other Bousman films, not only Repo! The Genetic Opera, from which Paul Sorvino, Bill Moseley, Alexa Vega, Nivek Ogre and J La Rose all return, as there's also Briana Evigan from Mother's Day. Half the notable newcomers are musicians: Shawn Crahan, founder of Slipknot; Ivan Moody, singer for Five Finger Death Punch; and Victoriandustrial violinist Emilie Autumn, an obvious choice given the circus atmosphere of her live shows. Her Bloody Crumpets came along for the ride, albeit supporting Vega rather than Autumn. Hell is an inviting place if it has Captain Maggot. Actors new to this world include Sean Patrick Flanery, who joined the Saw franchise after Bousman had left, Marc Senter and television names Dayton Callie and Jessica Lowndes, from Sons of Anarchy and 90210 respectively.

They all benefit from Dawn Ritz's magnificent costumes, the most obvious joy on show, outdoing the sets. Looking at Ritz's filmography, which mostly ties to award ceremonies and talent shows, I wonder if she leapt at the creative freedom. She makes these stars look great, not that some of them needed the help. What they don't benefit from is the running time. So many stars sharing so little time means that most don't manage to become more than mere extras. Inveterate scene stealers like Moseley make the most of the brief time they get, while Vega, Ogre and Sorvino find it harder. Vega's outfit looked amazing but sadly there's little chance to see it, while Ogre annoyingly vanishes shortly into his musical number because of how his character is designed. Singing both parts to her duet helps Evigan outshine Flanery and Lowndes, though all do well, adding little nuances to their lost souls that the singers in the cast are unable to emulate.

Where it goes wrong is with the style, surprising given that Repo! The Genetic Opera was strong on that front. The sets aren't bad but they're unimaginative and both the camerawork and the choreography are real let downs, with even less passion than the sets. It felt like the filmmakers saw getting these stars onto set and into costume as enough with everything we see after that unworthy of similar attention. It doesn't help that the setting can't fail to generate comparisons with cult classics like Santa Sangre or The Last Circus but, costumes aside, it can't hold a candle to them. The songs aren't up to the standard of Repo! The Genetic Opera either, certainly not approaching Tom Waits territory, another inevitable comparison. Some are too long, others too short, gone before they've begun. Unfortunately, they start poorly but end well, with coquettish Autumn getting the best one, after Zdunich himself, who presumably wrote the things.

The stories are unwieldy too, far beyond the caveat already mentioned. Aesop's fables weren't generally long affairs, often running a single paragraph, so there's much opportunity for creative interpretation. Grief and His Due isn't well known, so perhaps plays best with Flanery believably grief-stricken as he slits his wrists over the death of his son, only to search for him in the Devil's Carnival. The Dog and Its Refection is neatly adapted, with Evigan throwing herself into the role of a thief all consumed by the chance to win a huge gemstone. Weakest is The Scorpion and the Frog, mostly because it's so well known that it offers no surprises, Lowndes suitably gullible as a young lady who trusts everyone, always to her disadvantage. The framing scenes are varied, as some may not really make much sense until we see parts two and three. And there's the rub. As a film, it's incomplete. Maybe it'll improve when they make the rest of it.

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