Collins’ Crypt: You Should Visit MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD

The newly released '70s oddity is one of the rare horror films to be set entirely within a carnival.

Thanks to the inherent creepiness they offer, not to mention the vivid colors a DP could have a lot of fun with, carnivals are an enticing setting for horror films - though it's relatively rare to see films set entirely within one. Major sequences, sure - Child's Play 3 set its climax inside of one, and Clownhouse (ew, I know) split its time between the carnival and the protagonists' giant isolated home. Even Carnival of Souls limits its titular location to a couple of scenes - most of it takes place in a boarding house or on random Salt Lake city streets. The exceptions are few and far between, which is just one of the many things that makes Malatesta's Carnival of Blood such a memorable film. The woozy narrative will turn a few folks off, I'm sure, but for those who don't need every single thing to make sense, there is a lot to enjoy here - particularly its dedication to the setting.

Before I go further I should point out that when I think of a carnival I think of a place that's not permanent - if it's been established and constructed in one location for eternity, I think of that as an amusement park, not a carnival, and Malatesta certainly seems like it's set in the latter. There are labyrinthine buildings and complicated rides that couldn't possibly be slapped together and quickly broken down to take to the next town, so Malatesta isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps the terms were more interchangeable in 1973 when the film was released, but it doesn't matter - the production was shot at the Willow Grove amusement park in Pennsylvania, so even if the filmmakers wanted to use the traveling nature as a plot point, they didn't have the resources to hide the lack of anything that looked temporary in their setting.

In fact this is probably why so few films use such locales for their entire runtime (or at least a hefty part of it, like Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse) - a real carnival could be used for some establishing shots and the like, but those things are in town for a few days and then they need to move on, far quicker than any film production could be shot. Indeed, if you notice, films like Malatesta's and Funhouse set large chunks in areas that could be (read: most certainly are) located elsewhere - giant warehouse-type structures pop up with frequency, usually explained away as the "behind the scenes" staging areas for the rides (another dead giveaway that the "carnival" doesn't have the means to travel). With careful editing and screenwriting, you can spend a few days at a real carnival and sprinkle the footage throughout the runtime - hopefully no one will know the difference.

But whatever trickery they employ, it doesn't take away from the rather remarkable feat of setting the narrative entirely within the confines of the park. In The Funhouse there's a lot of time spent before everyone is trapped inside the eponymous funhouse, and the same goes for the similar (but abysmal) Dark Ride - but Malatesta's opens inside the park and never leaves it. When new characters are introduced, we meet them as they enter the grounds, not in the outside world, which has seemingly been omitted from the universe. It was a necessary decision, I'm sure, in order to firmly establish the film's dream-like state - people coming and going would wreck the illusion. And they don't just stick to a small part of the park, either - a Tunnel of Love, a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and a "Yo-Yo" type rotating swing all get major sequences, plus a few of the games (there's a great bit with a dunking cage) and general grounds that are clearly not being faked elsewhere. The production value for this dirt cheap weirdo movie eclipses even some major studio releases, and again, the inherent creepiness of such places (carnivals more so than amusement parks, but this park is rundown and sparse enough to offer that same lonely feeling) makes the movie spooky even when none of the weirdo stuff is going on.

That "weirdo stuff" includes a pack of cannibals who live inside the park and eat the occasional punter (because "no one ever taught them it was wrong"), and they also like to swarm around and watch silent films like the 1920's Hunchback of Notre Dame. Every other minute of the movie produces surreal images like that, and it more than makes up for the limited amount of coherent storytelling on display. For example, the plot is ostensibly about two parents and their daughter posing as carnival workers in order to find out what happened to their son who disappeared there - straightforward enough, right? Well, the thing is, he doesn't disappear until after they've taken those jobs, giving the film an almost Moebius strip quality. A young Hervé Villechaize also shows up as one of the carnies, speaking total nonsense every time and proving to be fairly terrifying when the plot calls for it. 

Such oddities are even more appealing when you stack it against other carnival/fun park horror films. I've mentioned Funhouse; it's probably one of Tobe Hooper's better films, for what little that means, though it's never as interesting as the history of its novelization by Owen West. West is actually a pseudonym for a young Dean Koontz, who was hired to write the adaptation of the screenplay when his career was just starting out. He was interested in the challenge, but the events of that screenplay weren't really enough to sustain a novel, so he added a lengthy prologue - it's well past page 200 of the 300 or so page book that it gets to the story presented in the actual film. Hooper's 1981 effort is fine, but apart from inspired villain interactions (and that amazing crane shot - you know the one) it's basically a straight up slasher movie (albeit with a fairly low body count for that era) that sticks to the titular locale instead of using the rest of the fair in any meaningful way. Dark Ride does the same thing, though omits the weird family dynamic of Hooper's film in favor of a solo and generic hulking brute. There's also House of Fears, which (again!) sticks to the funhouse but goes with a fairly enjoyable "you are killed by your worst fear" story instead of the usual slasher stuff (it also has a random Jared Padalecki cameo, if that's your bag).

Then there have been a few franchise efforts, like the 6th Howling film, The Freaks, which used a carnival for its primary location, though there was plenty in/around the town as well. Basket Case 3 and Ghoulies II also set their sights on traveling carnivals, as did one of the Puppet Master entries (Curse), which was actually just a ripoff of Sssssss. In all of these, the freakshow attractions are the primary tie to the location, as opposed to the rides and such - another way to smooth the production issues, I'm sure (once you establish the strongman and the bearded lady and what not in the carnival grounds, you can spring them loose in more generic locations!). Also, none of them are good.  

Of course, the grandaddy of such movies is Tod Browning's infamous Freaks, which if memory serves is set pretty much entirely at the carnival (though, being 1932, you shouldn't expect to see any major thrill rides). That film suffered censorship, a re-shot (and wholly out of place) ending, and box office failure... and yet, while imperfect, it's a must-see horror film, one of the few I've mentioned that can be considered as such. Not so much with Freakshow, the Asylum's latecomer ripoff film that is notable (to me) for at one point being the only horror movie in my local Blockbuster that I hadn't seen - and I never did bother (its 3/10 rating on IMDb suggests I made the right call), and it's kind of funny to consider that the Freak Show season of American Horror Story is generally considered by fans to be its weakest. There are enough carnival/fun park/freakshow films to qualify as a mini sub-genre of its own, but for some reason it has yet to produce many inarguable classics.

But a frequent problem with a lot of them is that they're forgettable, which isn't something you can claim about Malatesta's Carnival of Blood. Even if you hate it (boo on you), you're likely to retain several of its images in your head for a long time. I've seen Dark Ride twice and I can barely even remember what the killer looks like, but I'll have the heartbreaking and strange moment from Malatesta's where a girl places her dead father's hand on her head (as if to have him comfort her) burned in my memory for a long time. The film was just given a nice Blu-ray treatment from Arrow as part of the American Horror Project, a new series devoted to regional horror films that I hope continues for a long time (give us Haunts in Volume 2!). Along with a gorgeous transfer, it's got plenty of bonus features, including an interview with the writer who says his Fellini-esque script (whoa) was rewritten by the director, resulting in some of the film's woozier plot points. It comes with The Witch Who Came From The Sea, and The Premonition, starring Richard Lynch and featuring a few scenes set at... a carnival! Alas, it's not as good as Malatesta's, but how many horror movies with a carnival subplot are?

(Note - as is always the case with my "bunch of movies in a little sub-genre" pieces, this isn't meant to be an exhaustive checklist. I didn't "miss" Carnival of Terrors or "forget" Final Destination 3 - I just didn't have any real reason to mention them. However, if you know of another like Malatesta's with zero outside world scenes of note, please let me know!)