Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (Arrow blu-ray review)
Arrow's new concept the "American Horror Project" is to rescue obscure and unusual films from the history of grindhouse cinema. The first volume is based around three films that are covered in Stephen Thrower's brilliant "Exploitation USA" which is handy, as many of the films discussed have been difficult to see in the UK.
The first up is "Malatesta's Carnival of Blood" a film that has been missing for a number of years and has only once been released on DVD in the USA back in 2003. This new version is loaded with extra features including a commentary and interviews with crew. Directed by Christopher Speeth, who did not go on to have a serious career in the movies after this horror film, this is a very interesting film.
The story of the film is a simple one- a family get work at a carnival to try to locate a missing relative. As expected, the carnival hides a nasty secret buried underneath, and bloodletting ensues. However this is not a bodycount movie, full of slasher set-pieces, the special effects are cheap and the gore is minimal. This is not what this film is about, if you get your kicks through horror that way, then this film is not for you. If you like zoning out on strangeness rather than genuine fear and horror, then this should keep you interested.
There is much to recommend about this film- the set design is fantastic, sculpted from re-purposed car parts and junk which create some of the films best visual effects. The sound design also is wonderful, a "fear" track of musique concrete style bassy noises and screams (being a noise fan I urgently want a copy of the soundtrack dialogue-free!). The location of the carnival provides an eery background for the film, especially the rickety rollercoaster that looks as if it is about to collapse at any moment.
Unfortunately these elements are hampered by poor "off broadway" style acting that lends the production a theatrical aura which prevents the film from being a true classic. It's interesting to note that one of the cast worked on the wonderful Andy Milligan film "Fleshpot on 42nd Street", and whilst not as hysterical here, the acting has a Milligan-eque amateurness throughout.
There are moments of pure wonder to the film that remind the viewer of Kenneth Anger's magickal evocations, and the set pieces sometimes feel like they slip into the full on darkness of "Last House on Dead End Street" but never quite reach it. The overall tone is strange zonal netherworld, where the film never leaves the carnival, and it feels like a strange cyclical nightmare. The final shot of the film is also truly magical.
As for the rest of the package, the interviews are fascinating, and Richard Hartland Smith's commentary is informative, but slightly over-egged in his enthusiasm to suggest that the movie was a possible influence on Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I couldn't see that myself (in fact it felt closer in style to TCM2) but he makes some interesting connections. The package is wrapped up with a great Stephen Thrower introduction who explains the best frame of mind to watch this movie.
So is this film for you? If you enjoy trippy hallucinatory films like Death Bed and can accept the slightly pantomine amateurness of the proceedings, then I would say dive in and enjoy! I most certainly did, and will be revisiting it again once enough beers are consumed during a night of bad movies with friends.