You know what the movie industry needs more of? Carnies. Vampires were fun for a while, but how much more bloodsucking can we endure until we run dry? Carnies on the other hand, are a breed that has gone vastly unexplored and offers an abundance of disconcerting characters and illusions ripe for the big screen. One of the first to dig into the pool of circus freaks is Carnies and it certainly exemplifies the natural appeal of the subject matter.
Ratty and Virgil (Doug Jones and Chris Staviski) are both employed by Helen (Denise Gossett), the owner of a traveling sideshow. Ratty is the snake handler, Virgil’s the strong man and they’re joined by a slew of standard carnies including fortune telling gypsies, a sword swallower, fire-eater and more. Minus the financial troubles brought on by the Great Depression, business is as usual. Well, that’s until a murderous force invades the camp taking out the carnies one by one. Even with a local detective (Reggie Bannister) on the case, little light is shed on the situation. Virgil, Ratty and the sword swallower, William Crowley (David Markham), band together to do a little investigating of their own. Little do they know, the power they’re up against is no ordinary carnival freak.
In a time when modern carnivals around the country can entice hoards of suckers to dump $5 on a clearly bogus oddity, a movie focusing on the more ominous and seemingly real acts of the 1930s is greatly appreciated. A sense of uncertainty and terror is combined with cartoonish elements, namely Virgil’s very fake mustache, creating the atmosphere of an actual sideshow, one in which you can have fun and enjoy entertainment, yet still feel uneasy while doing so. Intensifying the sensation is the refreshingly inventive cinematography. Odd, but effective angles are frequently used as well as atypical viewpoints. Ratty’s love for his snakes becomes exponentially more powerful when he professes his love for ‘his queen’ and the speech is presented from the serpent’s prospective.
But Ratty is the only character who can easily do without the added bonuses provided by any department – cinematography, makeup, music – and solely rely on Jones’ ability. He’s the most natural of the cast and it only helps that the role is the most well developed of the bunch. Bannister and Gosset find similar success in their roles, but neither Helen nor the detective are very likable characters and lack Ratty’s commanding presence. Staviski’s portrayal of Virgil is a little harder to digest. Like his mustache, Staviski’s performance feels fake. On occasion he’ll deliver a line or two with an intense degree of authenticity, so the talent is certainly in there, but he just isn’t capable of holding it throughout a scene.
Overall, Carnies comes across much like Staviski’s performance, amateurish, however, that’s the beauty behind the film. As a debut feature writing-directing effort, Brian Corder’s production is admirable. He’s created a band of fascinating characters, an inventive story and, most impressive of all, presents them in a visually rousing manner. Also deserving of praise is Jeffrey Hayat and José J. Herring, those responsible for the score. They manage to make the opening credits, which merely consist of a rosewood font and simple animated background, intensely menacing with their orchestral composition. The tune pops up on occasion throughout the film and, whenever it does, delivers the same foreboding effect.
For those looking for a Hollywood-grade, CGI enhanced experience a la Cirque du Freak, Carnies will likely fall short. However, if you’re able to forgo all the fine-tuning money can buy, it’s a fascinating and memorable story. The most important thing one should take away from Carnies is its dare-to-be-different execution. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s the blatantly noble effort that’s so deeply appreciated and makes Carnies a worthwhile film.