Thursday, May 8, 2014

Circus of the Dead

(116 mins., screened May 2-3, 2014 at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas)

Whatever happened to Junior Healy?

I ask this because of all the axes Michael Oliver's titular hellspawn from the Problem Child movies had to grind, do you remember what his biggest pet peeve was? Clowns.

It wasn't that Junior was merely afraid of clowns in the traditional sense, the kind of primordial dread which has become fodder for many horror filmmakers to latch onto. No, he had an intense loathing of circus performers hardwired into his DNA. He despised clowns genetically, so much so that the most heartwarming moment in Dennis Dugan's 1990 original involved Michael Richards' "Bow Tie Killer" socking one poor Jocko right in his big red nose. There's no room for treacle when you're staring down the barrel of a crazed children's entertainer who has the alarming power to scare kids as much as amuse them.

Movies have been downright relentless in their treatment of clowns as pesky nuisances or worse. Even if there was one positive example of a film about a sympathetic circus clown, it would have to contend against at least ten depictions of face-painted monsters wreaking trails of fear and carnage away from the confines of their three-ring tents. I've seen movies in which clowns were in actuality asylum escapees (Clownhouse), bloodthirsty aliens (Killer Klowns from Outer Space), bitter alcoholics (Uncle Buck, Shakes the Clown), mass murderers (Gacy), vengeful bogeymen (It, Drive Thru), and perverted psychos (any appearance of Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding). And it's the last type of terror which is loose from its cage in Billy Pon's feature debut Circus of the Dead.

Papa Corn (Bill Oberst, Jr.) is the ringleader of the tormentors this time around, with his albino face paint relatively clean save for some touches of black around his eyes and chin as well as a proper blue dot on his nose. He also wears a hood which sports one lone curly tuft peeking out from the top, and is quite formally dressed. If such an appearance is subtle compared to his peers in the Creepy Clown contest (he could pass as a member of Kiwi new wavers Split Enz), then Papa Corn's behavior is enough to make even Pennywise vomit into a balloon. He's even nastier than your own worst impressions of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.

But Papa is also cut from the same cloth as Jigsaw, preferring to channel his sadism and sickening impulses into showing morally-stunted victims the error of their ways. His latest candidate is bored family man Donald Johnson (Parrish Randall), who takes a rare opportunity to treat his wife Tiffany (Chanel Ryan) and daughters Alyssa & Hillary (Jordan Bell, Madi Lane) to a night out at the circus. As they watch the quartet of clowns dress up as policemen to assault a sap dressed in prison stripes, little does the family realize that they're laughing at a man who had just had both his hand and his tongue severed in the clowns' trailer. And Don himself is soon going to experience his own extended degradation at the hands of Papa Corn and his minions.

Papa none too subtly eavesdrops on Tiffany's extramarital tryst with well-respected lawman T.C. (Roger Edwards) before descending upon the duo post-coitus. Don arrives home later than his daughters and is at first duly oblivious to the sight of his murdered wife upon stepping through the door. But Don soon finds himself the center of Papa's depraved attention, as he promises to let Don see his kidnapped brood with the Catch-22 being that he go for a Frank Booth-style joyride dotted with rape and murder.

Having started out as a fake trailer completed for that Grindhouse-spawned short subject competition back in 2007, Circus of the Dead is in the grand yet recent tradition of exploitation movie throwbacks such as Cabin Fever, contest victor Hobo with a Shotgun and Rob Zombie's first two flicks. Indeed, the opening sequence with four old men in a greasy spoon debating country performers, including an emasculated Conway Twitty, is very reminiscent of the many salty exchanges found in The Devil's Rejects. Co-writer and director "Bloody Bill" Pon wears his influences on his sleeve, which includes one of the most random allusions to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre I've ever seen.

But my real frame of reference in talking about Circus of the Dead isn't Rob Zombie, Tobe Hooper or any of the older killer klown movies, but instead the early screenplays of Eric Red, the man who in the 1980s wrote The Hitcher and collaborated with Kathryn Bigelow on both Near Dark and Blue Steel. Those three movies thrived on the psychosexual allure of the violent sprees which involved naïve protagonists and unhinged villains, so much so that they are like little Stockholm Syndrome passion plays. They are also coming-of-age stories, if you'd afford them to be, albeit ones steeped in savagery and graphic violence. That hangs over the bi-play between the eloquently evil Papa Corn and the colorless if sympathetic Donald. Not to say that the convenience store scene will surpass the barroom bloodbath from Near Dark, but Pon, co-writer Lee Ankrum and his actors give moments like these a dangerous, disturbing edge.

Bill Oberst, Jr., already one of the most prolific indie horror actors today (and no stranger himself to coulrophobia thanks to Scary or Die), might just net a franchise-worthy character in Papa Corn. It is a role which he embraces with the kind of fearless, demented gusto that turned Robert Englund into Freddy Krueger or Anthony Perkins into Norman Bates. It is unforgettable, through and through, the extent of his commitment to Papa Corn's persona, one which Oberst himself has described as "A homicidal serial rapist with a taste for necrophilia whose day job happens to be as a circus clown." It would be saying too much to go any further than that. And the equally prolific Parrish Randall finds all the right grace notes as Donald, not making him overly simpering but worthy of investment and the slightest hope of redemption which you probably shouldn't get too hung up on if you are as versed in B-movies as I am.

Pon doesn't quite follow through on the eroticism inherent in Red's writing, though, which ultimately reduces the film to the level of nihilistic comfort food, like a bowl of popcorn drenched in plasma-colored butter. Not to mention that the novelty of clowns acting as psychos has already decomposed, leaving a series of brutal set pieces which go over-the-big-top to shock and amuse, but are likely to leave many cold since the flagrant amorality effectively drowns out whatever revelations Donald is supposed to have. His complicity simply adds to the body count and any attempts to moralize on how he has effectively killed the things he loves somehow doesn't approach real tragedy. Instead, there is an omnipresent irony in the Coliseum-style prurience of spectators cheering on the clowns in their twisted displays of retribution, in which they prove themselves the equivalent of Rodney King's tyrants.

The overlong if decidedly unpretentious Circus of the Dead is not too concerned with indicting the gorehound masses as much as whipping them into a frenzy. For anyone eager to see the grisliest show on earth, Pon's maiden effort ought to fill quite a lot of seats, especially if you have sensitive bowels.


  1. Thanks for the awesome review..??

  2. John,

    Thank you for an extremely thoughtful review of Billy Pon's film. I found the Eric Red references particularly apt; I remember thinking when I read the Circus Of The Dead screenplay (the most brutal script I've ever been offered a role in) that if Pon put on-screen what on the page, it would be an incredibly hard-edged movie. I have not seen it yet, but your review confirms what I felt on set: Pon made the movie that was in his head with little compromise. I respect such filmmakers. A very intriguing review.

    Bill Oberst Jr.