Directed by Billy ‘Bloody Bill’ Pon
Written by Lee Ankum & Billy ‘Bloody Bill’ Pon
Starring Bill Oberst Jr., Parrish Randall, Chanel Ryan and Ryan Clapp
Run time 116 mins
This terror season, clowns are hot. From the recently announced crowd-funded double of Rob Zombie’s 31 and Full Moon’s latest Killjoy instalment; to the Eli Roth-produced Clown’s tentative Halloween release Stateside, if horror were the world of fashion, greasepaint, oversized shoes and a big red nose would be the latest must-have look on the scare catwalk. Big top bogeymen are ‘in’; and Circus of the Dead’s Papa Corn – the homicidal harlequin at the centre of this distinctly Texan frightmare – is the first fearsomely essential jester of this Bozo shockwave.
It’s one hell of a turn from Bill Oberst Jr., the Boris Karloff of indie grue. Making John Wayne Gacy (whose fitting “Clowns could get away with murder” quote opens the film) look like Ronald McDonald, Papa Corn is quite possibly the Emmy Award-winning thesp’s finest performance to date; a frightening, ferocious and deeply charismatic turn of unpredictable energy that – if there’s any justice in the world – should see the man finally mentioned alongside such modern horror heroes as Englund, Combs and Moseley.
Through a mysterious Tarot card game – “Like bingo, but from Mexico” – Corn has deemed Don (Parrish Randall, decent) , and his family ideal victims for their Saw-type morality game. Incapacitating – to the say the least – Don’s adulterous wife (Chanel Ryan, perfunctory), Corn snatches Don’s daughters and coerces him into joining his merry band of murderous clowns on an odyssey of bloody slaughter if he ever wants to see them alive again.
Building upon a mock trailer that opened his acclaimed short Doll Boy (the titular antagonist of which makes a fun cameo here), debutent feature director Pon has crafted an authentically scuzzy blend of Tobe Hooper-esque white trash schtick and Herschell Gordon Lewis-style exploitation. Mean spirited and grotty, Circus of the Dead is one sick little puppy of a picture; a charmingly ramshackle and gleefully repellent wallow through the lowest ends of the schlock spectrum. Its lack of slickness and, indeed, decency may prove too much for some, and its crossover appeal will almost certainly be minimal; but for those willing to embrace its boisterous nastiness it’s one of the years stand-out genre releases.
Shepherding an infectiously seedy carnival of perversity, Pon, along with co-scripter Lee Ankrum, happily piles on the transgressions; from the in-your-face DIY effects, to cannibalism, rape and necrophilia. Though the grotesque one-upmanship is undercut somewhat by Pon’s bursts of clumsy staging and his, at times, far too relaxed sense of pacing (Circus of the Dead clocks in at just under two hours, with a handful of scenes running much longer than they should), for the most part he proves himself a deft directorial hand; especially when it comes to the film’s numerous scenes of knockabout savagery. His flair for outrageous hyper violence is to be applauded, in fact, with one set piece in particular – a late night siege of a mini-mart – rivalling the infamous bar sequence in Kathryn Bigelow’s cult vampire hit Near Dark in terms of knuckle-whitening intensity.
Despite being somewhat tamer than recent taboo busters like Human Centipede 2 or the I Spit On Your Grave revamp and its sequel, it’ll certainly be interesting to see how Pon’s unflinching approach affects the film’s certification when – or if – it’s submitted to the BBFC. Fingers crossed it hits these shores, unscathed, soon; the adventurous would do well to seek this one out.
8 out of 10
Currently on the festival circuit, you can keep up to date with all the latest Circus of the Dead developments via their Facebook or twitter feeds HERE and HERE.
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