Jul 15, 2015
As someone who has lived in a beach resort area for about half a decade and spent most of my life before then visiting the same place on a monthly basis, I have a special nostalgic affection for carnivals and amusement parks, even if I have a very low tolerance for these places nowadays due to the multicultural mutants and miscreants that typically inhabit them, so naturally I am a sucker for strange films about strange carnivals. Naturally, as a fairly obsessive cinephile that was bred on horror cinema but long ago gave up on virtually anything that slithers out of Hollywood, I also have an unhealthy obsession with offbeat, avant-garde, experimental, arthouse, overlooked and/or otherwise strange and singular genre flicks. Of course, my dual love of antiquated carnivals and idiosyncratic arthouse horror is probably best personified in relatively low-budget early 1960s cult flicks like Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961) and Herk Harvey’s Cocteauian Carnival of Souls (1962), though the acid-addled late-60s and early 70s surely produced its fair share of truly ‘carnivalesque’ chiller cinema, with the once-lost and largely forgotten but thankfully now found psychedelic art-horror celluloid fever dream Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (1973) directed by one-time-auteur Christopher Speeth being arguably the most superlatively strange, shockingly rewarding, and conspicuously ‘cinephiliac’ of these works. Assumed lost for about three decades until it was released on DVD in 2003 after being remastered at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios, Speeth’s rather impressive debut was shot in Philadelphia in 1972 and is probably the most preternatural and phantasmagorical work of ‘horror’ cinema to emerge from the post-industrial bowels of the surely shitty east coast city aside from David Lynch’s masterful debut Eraserhead (1977) as a work that seems like a uniquely unholy marriage between Federico Fellini, Jack Smith, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Andy Milligan (notably, Daniel Dietrich of Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)) plays the eponymous villain), and George A. Romero (Dietrich also appeared in Dawn of the Dead (1978) as ‘Givens’). As a work that is drenched in psychedelic surrealism, darkly eccentric humor, and even a bit of cross-dressing, Speeth's film is probably the closest thing to a horror equivalent to the films of Salvador Dalí protégé Steven F. Arnold, which include all-too-queer high-camp surrealist works like The Liberation of the Mannique Mechanique (1967) and especially Luminous Procuress (1971). A largely nonlinear and obsessively oneiric work that puts Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) to great shame when it comes to making the viewer feel like they are actually trapped inside an obscenely outmoded yet ominous amusement park, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood tells the considerably convoluted yet nonetheless incessantly entrancing tale of a beauteous young brunette who joins a dubious carnival with her parents in the hope of finding her missing brother, only to discover said brother is probably long dead and fell prey to a virtual army of subterranean zombie-cannibals that are led by the titular villain and his sun-shy vampire and hook-handed comrades.
Featuring a literally and figuratively ‘underground’ collective of grey-faced and longhaired hippie-like cannibals that look and act like zombies and spend most of their time watching silent era Universal Horror and German Expressionist horror films when they are not drinking the vital fluids and eating the guts of normal folk, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood probably features some sort of message about the counterculture movement (judging by the film and it's absurd non-storyline, bizarre humor, and insane imagery, I think it is safe to say that Speeth, the set-designers, and various actors and crew members were regularly consuming whatever drugs that they could get their hands on while they were making the film), but it ultimately works best as a shameless piece of horror cinephilia that was written (the story is credited to a playwright named ‘Werner Liepolt’) and directed by people that thankfully understand that horror was actually once, long ago, one of the most technically innovative and artistically merited film genres. Indeed, like the Teutonic Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), of which an excerpt actually appears in the film, Speeth’s flick owes most of its singular atmosphere and overall potency to its preternatural mise-en-scène and stunning tableaux as a work that ultimately feels like an unlikely marriage between darkly campy exploitation horror and the nihilistic avant-garde films of goofy Guido Carmelo Bene (Nostra Signora dei Turchi aka Our Lady of the Turks, Un Amleto di meno aka One Hamlet Less). Indeed, just as Andy Milligan used the genre as a means to make his marvelously misanthropic and misogynistic crypto-melodramas more palatable to less discerning audiences and thus more monetarily profitable, Speeth seems to have utilized horror as a means of showcasing various ‘trippy’ and entrancing abstract sets that will probably dumbfound the average half-braindead gorehound, slasher fanboy, or Romero retard. Interestingly, the sets were designed by a seemingly LSD-inspired troupe out of Philly called ‘Alley Friends,’ who would go on to become somewhat successful architects that were responsible for designing everything from passive solar buildings to eco-friendly high-rise condominium buildings around Pennsylvania. With Malatesta's Carnival of Blood, the threesome managed to assemble what is nothing short of an aesthetically nihilistic avant-garde netherworld that seems like a sort of allegorical representation of mutated post-counterculture America and features a hysterically hungry horde of hippie cannibals that make the Manson Family seem like a tiny collective of failed drug dealers and pseudo-pimps. Of course, like David E. Durston's classic rabid hippie horror flick I Drink Your Blood (1970), Speeth's film does make some superficial allusions to Charlie's family.
In a scene that certainly establishes the somewhat campy yet uneasy and foreboding tone of Malatesta's Carnival of Blood, a cross-dressing gypsy-like fortuneteller named ‘Sonja’ (AIDS victim Lenny Baker, who played the lead in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)) uses tarot cards to give a reading to young brunette protagonist Vena Norris (Janine Carazo in her first and last film role) while bitchily yelling at her “Don’t touch my cards” and even physically assaulting her, as if he is one of those unconventionally misogynistic tranny fags who hate women because they are jealous that they have actual biological tits and vaginas. After the tarot reading, Vena asks Sonja how much he owes him and he curiously replies, “Owe me? Hahaha. The service is free…free to all new employees. This was no true reading, Vena, you must come back again when the cards have calmed themselves,” thus hinting that something horrible is brewing at the overtly ominous theme park. Mr. and Mrs. Norris (Paul Hostetler and Betsy Henn) and their debutante daughter Vena have become reluctant carny employees because their missing son disappeared somewhere around the carnival, though it soon becomes clear that their little boy has probably met a grisly end. As seeming suburbanites of the fairly conventional sort, the Norris family sticks out like sore thumbs among most of the other carnival employees, which include a campy and exceedingly effete ‘queen’ named Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey of Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976)) that acts as a manager and a sort of ‘master of ceremonies,’ as well as an antisocial chap with a hook for a hand and a deathly pale complexion named Mr. Bean (Tom Markus) that likes reading ancient Satanic material and discussing the merits of cannibalism. While Mr. Blood and Mr. Bean are sort of ‘generals’ of the carnival, the eponymous Malatesta, who may or may not have been named after the similarly swarthy Italian anarchist of the same surname and who likes to mostly get things done behind the scenes like the titular character of The Phantom of the Opera, is most certainly the true Führer, even if he seems too young for such a prestigious position.
Aside the Norris family, a fairly normal wisecracking young chap named Kit (Chris Thomas) has also just started working at the carnival and he soon develops a crush on buxom brunette Vena, who is unfortunately actually waiting for her boyfriend Johnny (Paul Townsend) to meet her at the carnival. As Kit somewhat cynically states to Vena upon first meeting her, “I run the Tunnel-of-Love. I flunked out of school and, providing that I work like hell, Mr. Blood has given me the dubious distinction of running that questionable wreck they call the Tunnel-of-Love.” When a hilariously violent and vulgar little Hebraic girl named Toby Davis (Karen Salmansohn) ends up riding the Tunnel-of-Love with her two parents, Kit, who is initially not paying attention to working because he is too busy reading a copy of the classic counterculture tome The Last Whole Earth Catalog: Access To Tools, is startled to see that the family is missing from their boat when it reaches the end of the ride. Indeed, the only thing Kit finds left of the Davis family is a pair of smashed glasses and some blood, thus leading the reluctant carny to assume that something sinister is going on at the carnival, so he informs Vena of the precarious situation. Meanwhile, Mrs. Norris pleads to her husband, “This place is evil…I can feel it” after the two discuss how their missing son is probably dead. Assuming the worst, Mr. Norris pulls out a handgun and declares he plans to carryout revenge against whoever harmed his sole male progeny. As a Svengali-like individual who seems like he is lurking around every corner and whose shadow haunts the side of buildings in a fashion not unlike Count Orlok in Murnau's Nosferatu, Mr. Blood soon realizes that the Norris family and Kit are on to him and his ghoulish compatriots and thus prepares to take appropriate action. Unbeknownst to Kit and the Norris family, Mr. Blood is a bloodthirsty vampire with a large gut and a voracious appetite and Mr. Bean is the head a large family of cannibalistic Satan-saluting quasi-zombie-cannibals that live under the carnival and have never seen a single ray of sunlight, though they regularly indulge in the greatest films that silent horror cinema has to offer while wobbling around like autistic automatons in front of a subterranean large movie screen.
While he is an evil little fellow that does his fair share of killing and terrorizing, a swarthy midget named ‘Bobo’ (Hervé Villechaize of Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980) and Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972)) provides lead Vena with some poetic hints of the horrors that await her via menacing melodies he sings to her and a couple other characters. Indeed, after singing, “Beware of evil who’s caught in the shadow of the dream. Beware of the mystery of the carnival who shall remain nameless,” Bobo points a shotgun at Vena in a threatening fashion and then scampers away like a rabid Chihuahua that is looking for something to sink it's teeth into. Meanwhile, Mr. Blood informs Kit while absurdly riding a bumper car that Vena has a lover named Johnny and that she is waiting for him to arrive at the carnival, thus crushing the young man's romantic interest in her. Of course, Mr. Blood's queenish gossiping does not stop Kit from attempting to act as Vena's knight in shining armor. In a pleasantly protracted scene that blurs the line between dream and reality and involves a malefic masked phantom in a forest, an eccentrically stylized car-turned-bed that hang upside from a ceiling, seemingly haunted archaic swinging angel and negro statutes, zombie-cannibals watching The Phantom of the Opera (1925) while tossing popcorn at the female lead as she stands in front of the movie screen, and a sort of giant condom trap, Vena is thrown into a sort of real-life nightmare that ends with her suffering a mental breakdown after finding the corpse of Kit with a knife in his heart riding on a decrepit old ferris wheel. When Mr. Blood finds Vena crying while crouching down in the rain in her pajamas, he arrogantly pokes her with his cane and less than sensitively states, “My dear, you’re so upset. My dear, it’s too bad about poor, poor Kit. Don’t be so upset though.” Meanwhile, Vena’s parents’ mobile-home is attacked by a motley crew of flesh-eating cannibal hippie deadbeats. While Vena manages to violently murder a sort of blind and elderly longhaired ‘zombie janitor,’ she is soon attacked and captured by Dr. Blood while he is channeling Bela Lugosi. Ultimately, Mr. Blood brings Vena to Malatesta, who fittingly stands over the girl while a scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is projected in the background where somnambulist Cesare sneaks into the character Jane's room while she is sleeping and snatches her from her bed. While Mr. and Mrs. Norris manage to escape from their trailer, Vena is taken prisoner by Malatesta. Naturally, it is all up to Vena's boyfriend Johnny to finally show up at the carnival and save his dimestore damsel in distress from the ravenous wrath of the hippie cannibals.
With would-be-loverboy Kit already dead, Vena’s boyfriend Johnny predictably finally shows up and inevitably becomes the new male protagonist, though he is slightly less charming than his pretty boy predecessor. Naturally, upon arriving at the carnival, Johnny finds Mr. Blood's claims to be more than a little bit dubious when the discernibly deceptive vampire informs him that Vena and her parents “died in their sleep of a freak accident” and that he should not “take it so bad” since he has a “long life” and “there are a lot of fish in the sea.” When Johnny begins looking around the carnival and walks into a dimly lit building where he finds an occult text with medieval satanic illustrations and arcane writing, he becomes fairly uneasy, especially when hook-handed cannibal Mr. Bean soon shows up and begins going on a preposterous pro-cannibal rant. Indeed, when Mr. Bean states, “Say listen, lad. They say meat builds blood and flesh and gives you new life. Do you believe that?” and Johnny reluctantly replies, “Yes, I guess so,” the cannibal makes the protagonist run out of the room as if he is scared for his life by adding, “So, wouldn’t it follow that a man could live longer and longer if he ate more of the same?” and then waving his hook in his face. When Johnny runs into menacing Asiatic midget Bobo, he is somewhat startled when the tiny terror sings to him, “Very, very not yet dead…Stupid Johnny, use your head. Put your feet where evil stands…The knife cuts quick, the blood pours red. Stupid Johnny, use your head…Very, very not yet dead.” Compared to his enemies, Johnny is indeed quite moronic and he certainly has no chance of outwitting, let alone defeating, a bunch of highly predatory vampires and zombie-cannibals who have been hunting and killing humans for god knows how long, but at least he tries.
In a somewhat unlikely twist, Mr. Blood shows up to the room where Vena is imprisoned while the cannibals are mindlessly watching Wallace Worsley’s classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) adaptation starring Lon Chaney and tells her that he wants to save her, stating, “I want to help you out of the frying pan,” but she finds his motives dubious yet still decides to follow him because she clearly has no other options. While leading her to ostensible safety, Mr. Blood explains to Vena regarding the amusement park and its secret cannibalistic inhabitants, “This carnival is constructed over a series of natural limestone caverns. That is how Bean has kept his family undetected for so many years…And they’re cannibals, every one. Most of them have never seen the light of day. That’s why they look so ghastly…Live like animals. No one has ever told them it is wrong, so how are they to know?!” In a scene that hints that he might be not only a bloodsucker but a cocksucker as well, Mr. Blood describes how he was forced to join the carnival after being run out of town and that he only realized later when it was too late that he “could not leave.” Of course, Mr. Blood ultimately reneges on his promise to Vena and delivers her to mysterious mad man Malatesta, but he makes the mistake of drinking the young girl’s “precious blood” beforehand without receiving the proper permission and is punished with a less than glamorous death by his fairly cold and brutal master. Upon approaching Vena as she is tied to what looks like a sort of Satanic operating table, Malatesta charmingly states to her, “I am a man of one thousand faces, Vena. Mr. Blood has seen my face, but to you I show a kinder face,” as if he plans to make her his lover instead of cannibal/vampire meat. Meanwhile, after poking his head through a gigantic wooden Confederate flag while pretending to be just another stumbling cannibal-zombie, Johnny finally manages to find Vena, but their untimely reunion does not last long. As F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is screened, Mr. and Mrs. Norris also attempt to rescue their daughter in the cannibal abyss, but the latter is soon hacked up by midget Bobo and subsequently eaten alive in a Romero-esque fashion. Of course, Mr. Norris is also soon killed after Malatesta drives a stake into his eye and then lets his flesh-eating underlings finish off the distraught father. After getting separated from Johnny, Vena is approached by tranny fortuneteller Sonja who, not unlike Mr. Blood, offers to show her a way out of the carnival catacombs, but ultimately makes her a prisoner of Malatesta again. The next day, after a cop shows up at the carnival and unwitting drowns Johnny upon playing a amusement park game that is rigged by Bobo, Malatesta celebrates his victory over mere mortals by riding some of his own rides while Vena begins to perish while in captivity.
Make no mistake about it, although blatantly flawed in many respects, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is certainly a lost cult classic of sorts with seemingly infinitely replay value. Indeed, I do not feel like I am succumbing to puffery when I say that watching Speeth's film for the first time offered me more or less the same enjoyment as when I first saw some of my favorite horror flicks like Carnival of Souls (1962) or Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973). Notably, I discovered the film after reading about it while flipping through NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007) and could not help but immediately hunt it down upon reading it be described by author Stephen Thrower as being, “Like the Euro oddity FREAK ORLANDO (1981), it’s really a showcase for the director and his art designers to go berserk with acid-tinged visuals.” Indeed, like Freak Orlando and many of Ulrike Ottinger’s other films (including, of course, her doc Prater (2007), which is about the history of the famous Viennese amusement park of the same name), Speeth’s film is a truly ‘carnivalesque’ experience that is the next best thing to being at an old school amusement park that is inhabited by actual living and breathing freaks. Unlike the films of sub-underground avant-gardist Fredric Hobbs like Troika (1969), Roseland (1971), and Alabama's Ghost (1973), Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is a rare forgotten American ‘artsploitation’ flick that can not only be enjoyed by annoyingly discernibly cinephiles like myself, but also braindead Romero fanboys that get a hard-on from seeing a reanimated corpse ripping out and gorging on the intestines some hapless cop or soldier while they are still alive. While obviously the rediscovering of Speeth’s film is not as important as if, say, Tod Browning’s legendary lost film London After Midnight (1927) aka The Hypnotist starring Lon Chaney were actually found one day, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is indubitably an invaluable and singular work in that it is a true testament to the artistic potential of low-budget horror cinema, which is certainly needed in a era when so-called ‘independent’ filmmakers find themselves mimicking the style, morals, and formulaic storytelling of Hollywood horror when they should be using their relative artistic freedom to test the bounds of the all too contrived and mostly mediocre genre. Surely, an open-minded novice filmmaker would find more artistic inspiration in Speeth's film than in all the films directed by the likes of Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, and Romero over the past two decades combined.
As a work that manages to shuffle darkly campy comedy, convention-bending horror, entrancing avant-garde tableaux, counterculture buffoonery, and a psychedelic approach to cinephilia, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood ultimately makes marginally comparable films like Ray Dennis Steckler’s bottom-of-the-barrel schlock anti-masterpiece The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964), Yabo Yablonsky’s The Manipulator (1971) starring Mickey Rooney, and Alan Gadney’s Moonchild (1974) seem like the closest thing to a horror equivalent to Federico Fellini’s Giulietta degli spiriti (1965) aka Juliet of the Spirits. Also, judging by Oliver Stone’s rarely-seen horror debut Seizure (1974) aka Queen of Evil, which incidentally also stars Hervé Villechaize, it seems that Speeth should have probably been the one that had a successful filmmaking career and had the opportunity to direct a Jim Morrison biopic and truly psychedelic serial killer flick instead of the softcore Hollywood conspiracy theorist. For a film that was so poorly budgeted that the actors that played the ghouls were paid a mere $5.00/day plus doughnuts and where the ‘director’s cut’ was intentionally destroyed to make trailers because the producers did not have enough money to make an extra print, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood, not unlike the oeuvre of Berlin-based blond beast Jörg Buttgereit, demonstrates why horror makes for a great genre to work within if you have little money to work with yet you want to create inspired celluloid art that has the potential to gain a loyal following. Not unlike Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil (1973) aka Dead People, Curtis Harrington's Ruby (1977), Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) and Bigas Luna's Anguish (1987), it also probably makes for the ultimate movie theater experience. Indeed, while I could easily list various glaring flaws that the film suffers from, my only real complaint regarding Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is that I have not been afforded the grand opportunity of seeing it play on the big screen. After all, it is not often that one gets the opportunity to watch a movie about cannibals watching German Expressionist movies.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 3:47 AM
Soiled Sinema 2007 - 2013. All rights reserved. Best viewed in Firefox and Chrome.