‘The Devil’s Carnival’ Review: Chaos Reigns

Posted in Screening Room by - September 12, 2015

Chances are, if you were in high school in the late 2000s and hung around the geeky or goth-side of the social circles, you were exposed to a strange little musical called REPO! The Genetic Opera. A quirky film that mixed equal parts macabre horror and highly-choreographed musical numbers, it proved the talent of Terrence Zdunich, as a sort of edgier Tim Burton. In the early days of Facebook, there were few better ways to fire up your friends than to post “Zydrate comes in a little glass vial…” and watch the chorus play out in a matter of minutes. So you can imagine how high expectations were when Zdunich announced his next project, The Devil’s Carnival.

Released in 2012, this horror musical follows three protagonists as they traverse a hellish fairground, each living out a re-imagining of one of Aesop’s fables. We meet each of them as they are whisked away from the mortal realm, just before their life ends: one by his own hand, another surrounded by police in her trailer, and the last under gunpoint by what we can only assume to be a distressed lover. Each encounters a demonic carnie, who lures them in by their weakness of choice, before attempting to swindle them into giving in to temptation and falling to their tortures, all set to showy musical pieces. These disparate stories are loosely strung together by fleeting interactions between our characters and Lucifer, himself, retelling the classic anecdotes to a small boy, who we find to be the suicidal man’s lost son.

And, really, that’s all there is. For as much excitement as one would expect to have after the team’s first musical horror-show, one would definitely have expected a stronger showing. You may notice a strange choice of words to describe the cast, and that’s because the movie gives very little to go from. All of them are stereotypes meant to perfectly fit their fable, and no time is given for any of them to have a sense of depth. I certainly can’t call them “heroes,” but neither can they all be classified as “sinners,” as it’s rather unclear whether the sheepish young girl who embodies “The Frog and the Scorpion” has committed any crimes at all; she’s just a victim of being too trusting of men who turn out to be violent and destructive. Perhaps she could be an adulteress, but that would require a large leap of logic that I’m not comfortable making.

This feeds into the central issue of the film, then: its reliance on a metaphor that is both weak and heavy-handed. Zdunich beats you across the face with his apparent high-minded questioning of morality, (the key conceit of the film’s recent sequel is “Heaven is darker than Hell,” a concept I’m sure many found novel in their angsty teen years), but he doesn’t lay out the structure well enough for viewers to want to buy in. That’s not to say that REPO! was some masterwork of satire, as the “corporations will literally own you”-motif is VERY played out in this day and age, but at least it had some interesting characters and a strong family narrative to pull it along. Our main hero, John (whose name, I should note, I had to look up for this review), is a father grieving the loss of his son, but outside of asking everyone he meets, “Have you seen my boy?” it’s not shown with the same gravity as seen in Zdunich’s previous work.

The Devil’s Carnival also falters under a much weaker soundtrack. Granted, the run time of thisouting is less than an hour, but in that time, we are still given about 7-8 songs over the course of the film. Yet the first two of these, “The Devil’s Carnival” and “666,” are messy and generally unmemorable. The first makes sense; being sung by all the carnies, it’s clearly meant to be chaotic and tumbling, much like a circus opener of the damned, as one may expect, but the second is basically a spoken-word piece, with only the main beats of “Six-hundred sixty-six”  sticking to mind. While these two numbers set the tone of the piece, they do so at the cost of its lasting impressions. It sets the viewer up expecting to be off-kilter for the entire run time of the film, but the rest neither delivers on this, nor does it serve at all to draw us in to the music of this world. That being said, almost all of the later numbers are incredibly strong, from the hobo clown’s “A Penny for a Tale”, to Lucifer’s climactic “Grace for Sale,” but then the movie ends on the carnies’ “Off to Hell We Go,” which harkens back to their original ear-shattering number, and the spell is broken (not to mention that the first two tracks are the ones chosen to be played behind the end credits, so there really is no escape from their lackluster performance).

Still, the film does play to Zdunich’s strengths, with a strong visual style and a certain jovial darkness about the entire piece. It’s a movie that, for all its flaws, you really do want to get into. It reminds you of what you know the directors and writers have been capable of before, but you find yourself pawing at a mirror that will never show what you’re trying to see. The Devil’s Carnival is in no way a bad film, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking the time to watch it, at least not until part two, Alleluia! gets a wider release.

Final Verdict: Skip it

This post was written by
He is a Nebraska native and UNL Honors alum with an ever-relevant degree in English. When he isn’t working his day job or writing for Kulture Shocked, Ben spends his time as an independent game designer, seeking to publish his first board game. You can also find him modeling for art classes around Lincoln or online as Dlark17 on most major gaming platforms.
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