Ok, this isn’t actually something on at the cinema right now, but the film is touring at several independent film festivals and is lining up a UK release as I write this. The director, Billy Pon, arrived on my radar with his superb short, Doll Boy (a review of which can be found here, and is available to buy here!) so it’s safe to say I was looking forward to this full-length follow-up. Was I going in expecting too much? Read on to find out
I’d also like to extend a hearty thanks to the folks at Bell Cow Films for the screener used to write this review. You guys are awesome!
Circus of the Dead (2014)
Dir: ‘Bloody Bill’ Pon
Starring: Bill Oberst Jr, Parrish Randall, Chanel Ryan, Roger Edwards, Ryan Clapp, Rusty Edwards, Mike Williams, Brad Potts, Tiffani Fest
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: As the odds are most of you won’t have seen this film yet, I’ll try not to spoil too much here, but read on at your own risk.
Circus of the Dead follows the exploits of a troupe of clowns, who are definitely NOT kiddy birthday party-friendly. Led by the incredible Bill Oberst Jr as serial rapist and psychotic mind-game player Papa Corn, the others consist of the chain-smoking, sardonic Mister Blister (Edwards); the enormous hulking cannibal Noodledome (Clapp, previously seen delivering the victims in the Doll Boy short) and the bestial, gun-packing dwarf Jumbo (Williams).
The film starts inside the clowns’ trailer, watching them prepare for a night under the big top while a raucous crowd chants for their arrival. Within moments we are made aware that these clowns are monsters in greasepaint. Then comes a quote from killer clown John Wayne Gacy.
In fact, it is during the films opening moments that we are given a quick peak at the links this film shares with its predecessor, Doll Boy. To people like myself who love continuity between horror films, this is a very nice touch.
Soon we are introduced to our protagonists, Donald Johnson (Randall) and his family, including wife Tiffany (Ryan) and young daughters Alyssa (Jordan Bell) and Hillary (Madi Lane). Don is a decent hard-working man who it seems has been neglecting his duties as a dad and husband, so a trip to the circus for family bonding time is on the cards.
In the real world, I would applaud this decision. In a film called Circus of the Dead, it makes me say: ‘Oh shit.’
Speaking of cards, it is upon the Johnson family’s arrival to the circus (OF THE DEAD!!!!) that we first witness Papa Corn’s sinister M.O.
Using a battered old pack of Mexican Lotería cards (described helpfully as ‘like Bingo for Mexicans’) Papa tries to match the various images on the cards to potential victims and then, if a match is found, the nightmare begins.
Needless to say the Johnsons are matches.
Following a genuinely uncomfortable scene in which the manipulative and terrifying Papa Corn is able to convince Donald to give him his home address, the pace escalates. Quickly.
Papa and the gang stakeout the Johnson house where we see that in her loneliness, Tiffany is conducting an illicit affair with local lawman TC.
Papa, when spying on the pair in bed, reveals his depravity, drooling, swearing and furiously masturbating (yep, that happens), before leading a raid on the home.
Later when Donald returns home he finds the clowns waiting for him.
He doesn’t stand a chance. From here Donald is pressganged into joining Papa’s troupe, told that if he does what he is told, when he is told, he will be reunited with his daughters. If not, the ‘babysitter’ (who Papa refers to as one of his ‘greatest creations’) will be allowed to do whatever he pleases with them.
So begins a spiraling journey into insanity as Donald becomes more and more complicit in the vile actions of the clowns, while the police try to piece together the truth behind these heinous crimes.
BEST BITS (minor spoiler warning): Do you ever go in to a film a little nervous because you have such high expectations and you realise you’ll almost certainly be let down? That was how I felt as I started to watch Circus of the Dead.
I had no reason to be.
This film is a fantastic, low-budget but extremely accomplished indie horror gem. The story (written by Pon and Lee Ankrum) builds and builds, it plays by its own logic and never breaks its own rules, something all too rare in modern horror films.
The film is marvellously shot (as the work of cinematographer Anthony Gutierrez so often is) and carries a gritty, redneck, West Texan charm that reminded me of The Devil’s Rejects and (dare I say it) the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
I guarantee that every single review will praise the cast of this film, and nobody will receive more plaudits than Bill Oberst Jr.
This film really hangs on Oberst’s portrayal as Papa Corn. A less accomplished actor could have completely derailed the film, but Bill absolutely nails the role. He is terrifying, charming, demented and positively Satanic. I wasn’t too aware of Bill’s work before I watched this film, but I will be watching very keenly from now on. He seems to be a highly prolific actor judging by his IMDB page and if he can bring half the intensity to his other roles that he does to this one, he will soon be a very, very famous name.
In fact, his performance, along with Rusty Edwards as Mister Blister (not to be confused with Mister Fister!), during the more extreme moments really pull the film together. There is a sequence that I can only call a mid-movie murder montage™ where shit REALLY hits the fan. It is visceral and vile and, well, completely awesome.
The gore positively explodes from the screen and the shocking moments come so thick and fast I honestly couldn’t even guess at what the body count is for this film.
But that isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have a dark vein of black humour throughout. It revels in its grindhouse excesses and has a couple of genuine laugh-out-loud moments. (Papa Corn’s line: ‘I may be a homicidal serial rapist whose day job happens to be a clown, but I’m not a liar!’ had me in stitches)
I also think the ending deserves praise, the film builds to its only logical conclusion and ends on a properly frightening and disturbing note.
Finally some quick points, there is a post-credits stinger that I really recommend sticking around for. I loved it!
And kudos to whoever picked the Beaumont’s rip-roaring, redneck, rockabilly ‘If You Don’t Love the Lord’ for the end credits. I honestly cannot think of a better track to encapsulate the energy of the film.
WORST BITS (minor spoiler warning): This section is going to be short, as I had very few problems with the film at all.
I imagine some people may be put off by the film‘s runtime (it clocked in at just shy of two hours). Normally I’m of the opinion that a horror film needs to be a short sharp shock, but I really think Circus of the Dead justified that length.
Perhaps the earlier scenes could have been trimmed to make it punchier (it’s over half an hour before Papa et al descend on the Johnson family home), but I’m patient and feel that nicely building the tension really adds to a film, rather than detracts from it. I suppose it will be a matter of personal taste, and to me, it fell on the right side of layering a story rather than dragging it out.
I did feel that perhaps more focus could have been placed on Donald and his family. The film follows the clowns for almost the entirety of its runtime. This means that Donald is a little less compelling than the nihilistic antagonists. But with Bill Oberst Jr’s mesmerising turn as Papa Corn I can very much understand why the director may have wanted to keep the camera on him!
Also, I feel that some people may find this film a little extreme. The nature of some of the attacks (there is a strong element of sexual violence and the Madre attack during the montage may cause offence to some) could be seen as too much to more sensitive viewers. I’d argue that the over-the-top nature of the film takes the edge away from the worst moments, but those who aren’t great with more extreme films might be best to think twice about this one.
Finally, nobody made a Miami Vice joke about the character Don Johnson. MISSED OPPORTUNITY GUYS!
VERDICT: I’m going to cut straight to the chase — WATCH THIS FILM.
It’s excellent and shows a lot more energy and pride than a lot of big studio horror films. It is extreme at times, but the nature of horror films is to provoke a visceral reaction in the viewer. I had belly laughs and a genuine gasp of shock watching it alone on a small laptop screen — I can only imagine how fantastic an experience it must be to watch Circus of the Dead on the big screen with an appreciative crowd. Fingers crossed that us fans on this side of the pond will get a chance soon. In the meantime, watch the trailers here and here and wait for more news.
Finally, I bring it back to Papa Corn. I’m just annoyed that I saw this film after writing my feature on 13 Great Horror Villains From The Last Decade — if I’d watched Circus of the Dead before I wrote it, Papa Corn would have made the list hands down. I for one cannot wait to see more from Papa and the crew (including ‘the Babysitter’, wink wink). Will there be more? Well, that would be telling…
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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.