In a rather assorted assemblage of actors, it’s Dayton Callie, of Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy fame, who stands out most admirably as the Ticket-Taker – for one thing, watching him sing and softshoe in a rock n’ roll horror musical is pretty unexpected. He provides gravitas and a humanistic sympathy as the first face those doomed souls about the enter the Devil’s playground see. Once the victims pass through the opening, each subsequent greeter and guide is more menacing than the last.
In the pilot episode of this unique experimental film series (clocking in at just under an hour, and going “on the road” with the filmmakers concert tour-style, the hope is to earn enough with each stint to finance the next installment) we meet three sinners who are given the chance to redeem their doomed souls and ascend to heaven. At first, the Devil’s Carnival is a wicked wonderland of beauty and seductive fun… but it's like a red shiny apple harboring a worm, a razorblade and poison inside. Once the bait is bitten, it’s too late.
Sean Patrick Flanery plays John, a grieving father who takes his own life. Briana Evigan is Merrywood, a greedy thief who's slain in a shootout with the police. Trusting Tamara (Jessica Lowndes) is killed by her abusive boyfriend. Once they enter the not-so-pearly gates of the Carnival, each of the sinners is given a moral challenge which is reminiscent of their mortal distress. Lucifer looks on, stacking the decks and adjusting the scales as necessary and reading incantations from a magically imbued tome of Aesop's Fables.
The Devil's Carnival, as with any pilot episode, has a few issues (especially tough in this case, since it must stand alone for the foreseeable future). Personally, I found the first act a hard in; by the time I fell into step with the stories, the show was almost over. While he is the puppet-master meant to stand back and watch his havoc unfold, I feel The Devil should've had a larger role and more songs; Zdunich has the strongest presence and best voice in the cast (Emilie Autumn, a steampunk freestyle violinist, runs a close-second as the kissing-booth bandit). Paul Sorvino, as God, is over-the-top (and “the top” for a spectacle like this is pretty much in the stratosphere, so you can imagine...), but it will be interesting to see what director Darren Lynn Bousman decides to do with him, should Sorvino reprise his role. And speaking of less being more, I, for one, do hope The Devil downplays his outwardly evil appearance as the series moves forward – the prosthetic makeup, giant 'Legend' style ram horns and gnarled hands obscure more than they enhance. I'd like to see Zdunich more as a Father of Lies along the lines of Clarence Brown (HBO's Carnivale) or Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), than as an outright demonic caricature.
Repo! returnees Alexa Vega, Bill Moseley, Ogre, and J. La Rose are redoubtable in their quirky cameos. It's fun to see stage performers like Shawn Crahan from Slipknot deviating from their usual zones, and doing it well. Perhaps the best surprise was Lowndes, who's best-known for her TV acting in shows like the 90210 reboot, doing a sexy duet, In My Dreams I Drown, with the Devil.
As expected, especially from those of us who know Bousman's theatrical sensibilities, The Devil's Carnival looks like a million bucks. Bursting at the seams with burlesque beauty, each character is costumed to the nines, and each number is danced on a set also dressed to the nines. Exploiting practical locations (namely, an actual carnival scrap-yard in California's Inland Empire), shooting at night, and putting an edgy twist on costumes which are at once ragged and ritzy, the viewer is treated to oodles of eye (cotton)candy all the way.
The songs, written by Zdunich and Saar Hendelman, are catchy and clever – especially A Penny For A Tale (sung by Ivan Moody of Five-Finger Death Punch), Grace for Sale (sung by Zdunich), and In All My Dreams I Drown.
While The Devil's Carnival may not yet be in complete working order, I still recommend catching the road show. (The only caveat: be prepared for Repo! fans, who will more often than not be vocal during the film, pulling you out of the story with their comments and cat-calls.) It's a treat to see the filmmakers not only shepherd their creation, but to get to ask them any question you like, during the after-show Q&A. What's more, merch is sold on-site (the soundtrack, stunning prints drawn by Zdunich, t-shirts, etc.). It really is the complete traveling road-show experience!
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson
Heaven's All Around - Paul Sorvino
The Devil's Carnival - Alexa Vega, Mighty Mike, Bill Moseley
In All My Dreams I Drown - Jessica Lowndes/Terrance Zdunich
666 - Dayton Callie and Carnies
Kiss The Girls - Alexa Vega and Woe-Maidens
Beautiful Stranger - Kevin "Ogre" Ogilvie/Briana Evigan
A Penny For A Tale - Ivan Moody
Trust Me - Marc Senter
Prick! Goes The Scorpion's Tale - Emilie Autumn
Grief - Sean Patrick Flanery
Grace For Sale - Terrance Zdunich
Off To Hell We Go - The Carnies
Emilie Autumn ... Painted Doll
Shem Andre Byron ... Hellharmonic Musician
Dayton Callie ... Ticket-Keeper
Shawn Crahan ... The Tamer
Briana Evigan ... Ms. Merrywood
Sean Patrick Flanery ... John
Zach Kasik ... Hellharmonic Musician
Maggie Lally ... Woe-Maiden (as Maggie 'Captain Maggots' Lally)
J. LaRose ... The Major
Jessica Lowndes ... Tamara
Benjamin Michael Marsh ... Carnie
Laura Meadows ... Hellharmonic Musician
The Blessed Contessa Montebello ... Woe-Maiden
Bill Moseley ... The Magacian
Mighty Mike Murga ... The Fool
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Staci Layne Wilson's Fab 14 Circus & Carnival Cinema
- Santa Sangre
- Carnival of Souls
- Wings of Desire
- The Vampire Circus
- Something Wicked This Way Comes
- Nightmare Alley
- Zombie Land
- House of 1000 Corpses
- The Funhouse
- Final Destination 2
- Howling VI: The Freaks
- Roselyn & the Lions