Why do we, you Fellow Fans and I, enjoy horror films so much? It’s a question I’ve posed elsewhere on this site, and the reasons for our macabre enjoyment are probably as varied as those of you reading this. The film that brought this question to the front of my mind yet again is the subject of this review, Billy “Bloody Bill” Pon’s upcoming flick Circus of the Dead.
The film begins with a rather…unsavory look at what is to come, but quickly introduces us to the family of Donald and Tiffany Johnson and their two children, Alyssa and Hillary. Don is apparently facing a mid-life crisis, feeling very bored and dissatisfied with his life. Tiffany tries to bring him out of it, reminding him that his family needs him, and that such feelings will pass if he’ll just accentuate the positives. To try to kick-start this, Donald takes his family to the circus that has come to town, hoping for some bonding and general family fun to break him out of his funk. Unknown to Don (and the rest of the audience), the troupe of clowns with this particular circus are not clinging to the tradition of inspiring laughter in their audience; they’re playing a sadistic game, and Don and his family become spur-of-the-moment targets for the psychotic bunch. What follows is a horrifically gruesome journey for the husband and father, a trail of rape, murder, and unspeakable atrocity that he hopes will save his family; however, can the word of Papa Corn, the leader of the clowns, be trusted?
The film starts out very typically; we’re introduced to the protagonists, have a little insight into their lives; it’s all very by-the-book for a time. For me, the dialogue at times seems a little forced; I’m not blaming the actors, all of whom I thought did very well; the lines were just a bit too contrived at times to be convincing. Fortunately, this is minimal; once things get rolling and the script gets to where it’s going, the performances elevate with same intensity that the story itself does. The violence, recklessness, and utter lack of anything approaching human decency in the characters is jarring, and quite a few taboo lines are crossed with abandon; torture, dismemberment, every manner of evil compacted into a coulrophobic’s nightmare. Still, it’s all skillfully done in such a way that it’s compelling; there are things you don’t wanna see, but you can’t look away; even dark humor makes its way through the carnage at times…so though the first part of the scripting kinda bugged me, I have to say that co-writer/director Pon’s visual storytelling more than made up for any early shortcomings. The characters were memorable, the terror palpable, and the gore was in-your-face and unapologetic. Be warned, you probably don’t want your kids sitting in on this one; aside from the head-smashing, entrail-ripping, stabbing, and shooting, several of the assaults are of an explicit and disturbing sexual nature…“Just doing what I do”, to paraphrase Papa Corn….
…speaking of which, no review of this film would be fair without extolling the performance of genre icon Bill Oberst Jr. as the twisted leader of the clowns. His fearless portrayal of the “homicidal serial rapist” was masterful; he went from chummy to chilling with effortless grace, and left a lasting impression on what I’ll think of psycho clowns from now on.
Circus of the Dead is one of those entries into our favorite genre that, upon first watching, lulls you into complacency; it makes you believe what you’re watching is your basic run-of-the-mill low-budget indie hack ‘n’ slash. It takes just enough time to get you there, then turns to brutally slap the shit out of you, pushing you out of that “comfortable” formulaic zone. It shows us what real horror is: the utter absence of reason. You might notice a taste of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or House of 1000 Corpses, but this film stands on it’s own clown shoes; it goes further, taking up the thread that those legendary films left lying for future movies to pick up…and running like hell with it.
I can’t say I enjoyed it all as I watched it; that would suggest that it was a fun, giggly couple hours spent in front of the screen. No folks, this one came out and hit me when I wasn’t looking, and generated some genuine disgust and grimace moments. Ironically, it’s for these reasons that I believe it is an excellent horror film; I can assure you I will definitely be seeing it again.
I apologize for the contradictory nature of that statement, and I’ll try to clear up the paradox with this brief musing:
True horror is that which most frightens, disgusts, or mortifies us; it makes us recognize our own mortality, and face that our ends could be painful, horrific, and most terribly, without meaning. What we discuss giddily amongst ourselves that we enjoy about horror flicks or thrill-rides or near-misses is akin to the gallows humor of combat veterans and disaster responders: what we can draw humor, joy, or thrills from after the fact was nonetheless abhorrent, terrifying, and not a goddamn bit of fun as it occurred.
With it’s unflinching and unapologetic display of the blackest, most evil of capabilities that can exist in people, Circus of the Dead does what we ultimately want a horror film to do…
That’s why we watch them, isn’t it?
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