Having seen my share of horror oddities on TV, in theaters an via assorted video formats since the 1970’s (okay, late 60’s if you count those Chiller Theater and Creature Feature reruns), I have to say Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is way up there as one of the more bizarrely unfocused storytelling-wise but visually striking genre films I can recall. Thanks to Arrow Video, the film has been lovingly restored and presented as one of the three films in its must-own American Horror Project Volume 1.
Director Christoper Speeth‘s unusual flick is a loosely (VERY loosely) plotted tale of a family who’s invested in a run-down carnival that has some pretty grim secrets underneath its dilapidated thrill rides. Some viewers may note slight similarities to Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead and certain silent films the movie itself spotlights at certain moments. While the film does suffer from a number of continuity issues no editor could fix thanks to many shots being done in a single take, the production design and overall tone here makes this one well worth watching. Trust me, if the bizarre found object set design doesn’t hook you in, it’ll be the general weirdness and downbeat tone you can feel from the outset that work their magic on your eyes and brain. Did I mention you also get to see singing ghouls and cannibalism by said ghouls here? Nope? Well, yes indeed you do.
In a nutshell, the plot centers on that aforementioned family, the Norrises. We meet Mr. Norris (Paul Hostetler), Mrs. Norris (Betsy Henn) and their lovely daughter Vena (Janine Carazo) as they poke around their investment with a few others who’ve put money into the carnival. After a family goes missing in the Tunnel of Love as does the guy who goes in to rescue them, The Norrises suspect something is up but only Vena decides to investigate, meeting up with a worker (Chris Thomas) who also suspects things are quite odd at the workplace. Let’s just say her poking around gets the night dwellers in the carnival activated and the creepy Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey) acting even stranger than he does during daylight hours. Trust me, during the day he’s scary enough to want to avoid, but he haunts Vena like a shadow and seems to know even more than the transvestite fortune teller (Lenny Baker) who gives Vena the tarot reading that opens the film.
It turns out the carnival is led by Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich), a black clad, caped dude who may be the least threatening horror star ever. Seriously, the guy looks like Adam Driver cosplaying (badly) as Edgar Allan Poe. I half expected Lena Dunham to pop up via time machine as Vena and start rolling around on those imaginative sets in Vena’s too-short 70’s nightie. I guess if this flick ever gets remade at some point, there go two of the main parts to be cast, right? Anyway, Malatesta leads the ghouls in some underground rituals that involve screening silent films, throwing stuff at the screen and having them go after victims so they can eat their flesh. Maletesta is supposed to be a shape-changing demon of some sort, but his screen time is so limited and erratically placed that he’s the least threatening thing in the movie. The best parts of the film with him are when he changes to a balloon-filled suit when a character tries to choke him and later, the shots at the end where he’s enjoying a ride at the carnival.
Next to Blood and the wild-eyed clean-up guy/killer called Sticker (William Preston), it’s Bobo (Hervé Villechaize) who’s the biggest pain in the neck, going to far as to poke Vena in the boob with a pellet gun. Anyway, paying attention to what story there is being told reveals this isn’t going to be a happy ending film at all. That said, the trip is worth the ride thanks to the always offbeat visuals and eager cast of what seems to be stage actors or people just diving into their small to moderate parts with relish. Note to the squeamish, There’s a wee bit of blood and gore here from killings and the aforementioned cannibal stuff complete with bright red stage blood and in one shot, what looks like an actual needle going into someone’s arm (administered by a real doctor if the credits are correct). By the end, you’ll either be dazed and confused or wanting to dive back in to re-watch this oddity.
Before that, make sure to poke at the excellent special features that include a great intro by Stephen Thrower who wisely notes the proper way to watch the film is to go in with little to know expectations. There’s an excellent interview with Christopher Speeth where he admits the films flaws while noting all the hard work that went into making it as well as memories of working the rather talented Villechaize. Screenwriter Werner Liepolt gets an interview where he comments on how the script came together and how the director changed many elements as the film was being made. Art directors Richard Strange and Alan Johnson get their say as well, noting that the film was indeed a huge mess, but they liked how they pulled off those imaginative sets using an old warehouse and whatever was inside or around it. You’ll certainly never look at an old Volkswagen Beetle, bubble wrap and paper coffee cups ever again. Or you’ll see those things in a scarier light to the point that your friends will call the banana truck. Outtakes and still images make up the rest of the disc, so make sure to peek at those a some point if you’re all hooked in for the long haul.
Overall, the 2K transfer is quite good with only a few artifacts near the beginning of the film and what looks like some color loss due to age in certain scenes. Arrow is doing some of their best work to date and one hopes this American Horror Project deal goes on for a good long time. There are so many oldies of assorted quality that have been missing from the HD scene or have not so hot DVD versions that it’s going to be a good long run with the right people on the case. Grab this set for yourself or as a gift for someone special and be prepared to watch them scream with delight. Or with terror at some of the sights and sounds from this trio of newly issued gems.