You simply must hand it to filmmaker Darren Bousman. After landing a seat on board Lionsgate's old Saw money train (he was responsible for most of what you enjoyed or hated in Saw 2, Saw 3, and Saw 4), he didn't take the easy way out. He could have done easy, studio-backed remakes that were sure to land at least a $15 million opening weekend; he could have done even more sequels; he could have been lazy. Say what you will about Bousman's 2006 effort Repo! The Genetic Opera -- it sure as hell wasn't lazy. Not in concept, execution, or in the way it's been exhibited. Some say the tongue-in-cheek horror fan was simply trying to copy the "cult classic" sheen of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, whereas others (including me) believe that Bousman and his frequent collaborator Terrence Zdunich truly enjoy the idea of a horror-themed rock opera movie. IF the "alternative" fans happen to take note and turn the film into a midnight movie favorite, that's for the ticket (and DVD) buyers to decide.
Even if you absolutely detested that Repo! flick, you probably wouldn't dismiss it as obvious, formulaic, or lazy -- but if you did like that certifiably bizarre little movie, then you're almost certain to enjoy The Devil's Carnival. Not because it's a sequel or a copy (it's not), but because Bousman, Zdunich, and several of their Repo! co-workers have reunited for another strange, pulpy, and admirably earnest piece of theatrical filmmaking. For those who appreciate familiar faces, you'll catch Paul Sorvino, Bill Moseley, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Marc Senter -- although my favorites were the show-stopping contributions from the lovely Alexa Vega and a newcomer called Emilie Autumn. The songs are, to my own tastes, an improvement over the ones found in Repo!, although this time around they're being used in service of an anthology story. Inspired by three of the more familiar of Aesop's Fables, The Devil's Carnival offers three simple morality plays that take place knee-deep in, well, just read the title.
Our heroes, of a sort, are A) a woman who craves jewels and diamonds to a ridiculous degree, B) a man who is about to commit suicide in his bathroom, and C) a pretty young gal who doesn't really think -- and has terrible taste in men. All three are about to enter the netherworld, of course, and it's there that they'll have to win a few prizes at (you guessed it) The Devil's Carnival. The performers are a motley crew indeed, and needless to say: they're all in the employ of the big red boss. A few of the more eager carnival types earn a central role in tonight's festivities, and off they go to make trouble for our three recently-deceased sad-sacks.
Also there's lots of music. Tons of songs, really. At least 10 or 12 jammed into a very quick and expeditious concoction that uses old-school fairy tales, modern horror trappings, and a more than evident sense of enthusiasm to keep its grim and garish plates a'spinning. The tunes (co-written by screenwriter Zdunich and composer Saar Hendelman) are an eclectic mix indeed, and if you're not in love with the current one, one of the next few is bound to amuse you. It's the combination of legitimately professional filmmaking and a lovely air of "let's put on a show" amateur ebullience that makes The Devil's Carnival (and its spiritual predecessor) such honest fun. But it's the final touch, the commitment to Gothic horror, occult themes, and the wonderful genre of horror in general ... that's what the "cult" audiences can smell a mile away, and generally they really like it. It's tough to pull off dark, musical, gory, and playful at the same time, on very limited means, for a very specific type of audience, and while I'm more of an observer than a participant in Bousman's road-show carnival movie shows, I am certain that this is a showman who respects his audience. Dismiss Repo and Carnival as weird musicals for weird people if you like, but there's always room for a filmmaker who treats his ticket-buyers well and delivers something sort of ... unsafe.