Directed by Billy Pon
Clownsploitation. I don’t know if it’s an official genre, but it should be. We’ve had a few that fit the bill, but maybe not any as much as Circus Of The Dead.
Realistically, the title of this one is completely off. The whole ‘of the dead’ thing makes you expect zombies, and this is thankfully bereft of the walking dead. I’d suggest ‘Clowns Behaving Badly‘ or ‘A Serbian Film In Greasepaint‘.
I don’t really mean either of those as a compliment, but they do fit.
This one is Texan through and through, from Odessa-based writer/director Billy ‘Bloody Bill’ Pon, to Texas horror mainstay Parrish Randall, to the setting and shooting location of West Texas. The soundtrack throbs with Texas Psychobilly and Texan accents are everywhere. Being a Texan, I consider this a plus, but it can’t save the movie from itself.
The setup here is as simple as it gets: there’s a run-down traveling circus with a group of clowns that are psychotic serial rapists/killers. They choose their victims from town to town via a card game from Mexico. If they think you somehow match one of the cards, it gets an X and you get dead after an assortment of horrible things happen to you.
This ain’t Shakespeare, so that’s okay. More has been done with less.
The Johnsons are a standard suburban family. Dad works too much and doesn’t pay enough attention to wife or daughters. Wife is straying. Daughters are doing things like listening to gangsta rap and drinking soy lattes. (This is Texas so those are bad things. Look, just go with it.)
They go to the circus as a bonding trip, and draw the attention of Papa Corn (Bill Oberst Jr.) who leads the troupe of killer clowns.
A violent home invasion later, and the kids are in the hands of the clowns. Dad (Parrish Randall) has to do whatever Papa Corn says, and then maybe he’ll get his kids back.
Pon wants all of this to be a morality play. Will the detached, neglectful father find the love inside to do these horrible things to save his daughters? It almost works. Almost.
Circus of the Dead is a victim of it’s own excess. It runs almost two full hours, and man does it feel longer. You could easily slice half an hour out of this movie and still have a little fat left around the edges.
The problem isn’t just that it’s long, it’s what needs to be cut. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but they need to cut the most extreme of the content and shoot for a straight R rating.
See, Pons is trying to tell a morality tale while showing insane amounts of extreme content. He’s seen A Serbian Film one too many times, and this film starts to feel like a checklist of transgressions. Clown masturbation? Check. Rapes? Check. Torturing children? Check. Graphic murder of a fetus? Check. Clown penis? Check. (Yes, I said clown penis. Yes, it had a clown face on it.)
The extreme content doesn’t serve the film. Take that penis for example. That could have been a funny moment, but it’s revealed immediately following the brutal beating of a young, pretty girl, and immediately before her attempted rape. All portrayed very graphically and realistically. That’s not fun, so to shove something fun in the middle just comes off as jarring and bizarre, not entertaining.
The movie is full of moments like this. Papa Corn getting hot and bothered as he watches through the window at Mrs. Johnson’s infidelity is played for laughs…then it goes on and becomes graphic masturbation, and that just makes it…icky. One second, it’s over-the-top insanity. The next, gritty, realistic perversion and violence. It’s an uneven mess.
Pon needs to decide what movie he wants to make: a schticky violent movie (House of 1000 Corpses) or a hardcore, gritty, mega-transgressive film (A Serbian Film). Right now he has something that tries to be both, and succeeds at neither.
The movie isn’t without it’s merits. Oberst Jr. creates a honey of a lunatic in Papa Corn. The guy is becoming the man you go to when you need a completely bent psychopath, but this is why. He’s really, really good at it. Randall, previously a fixture as second banana or background characters, takes the lead here and does a really solid job as the anguished father. He certainly must be tired after the amount of thrashing and screaming that goes on here.
The clowns are a very interesting team. You want to learn more about them, and sadly, you never do. They’re equal parts hilarious and creepy, and that’s exactly how they should be. Even though Papa Corn gets 90% of the dialogue, you’re just as interested in the other three killers. That speaks to the performances and the direction.
Circus of the Dead is not a bad movie. It’s also not a good movie. It is definitely an unpleasant movie. I’d like to see Pon hire on a really good editor and have a come-to-Jesus moment in the booth over this one. Trim the worst of the worst, since it adds nothing to the film anyway, and focus on the clowns and the main plot. Find a tone and stick to it. Somewhere in here is a really enjoyable low-budget 90-minute film. Unfortunately, I saw a two-hour confused movie that couldn’t decide if it wanted to make me laugh or make me throw up, and didn’t manage to do either one.
2 out of 5
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!
Starring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman
Directed by B.D. Benedikt
Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision
Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.
Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.
Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.
The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.
Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.
The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.
There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.
“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.
“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
- Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
- The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.
The Crucifixion Review – Should’ve Left This One Nailed to the Cross
Starring Sophie Cookson, Corneliu Ulici, Ada Lupu
Directed by Xavier Gens
Claiming to be inspired by actual events, director Xavier Gens’ The Crucifixion forgoes the affecting shocks and awes, and instead beats its audience into the ground with a laundry-list of ho-hum dialogue and lesser-than-stellar instances…forget the priest, I need a friggin’ Red Bull.
A 2005 case is spotlighted, and it revolves around a psychotically damaged woman of the cloth (nun for all you laymen) who priests believed was inhabited by ol’ Satan himself. With one rogue priest in command who firmly believed that this was the work of something satanic, the nun was subject to a horrific exorcism in which she was chained to a cross and basically left to die, which ultimately resulted in the priest being stripped of his collar and rosary…how tragic. Enter an overzealous New York reporter (Cookson) who is intently focused upon traveling to Romania to get the scoop on the botched undertaking. After her arrival, the only point of view that seems to keep sticking with interviewees is that the man who sat close to the lord killed a helpless, innocent and stricken woman, that is until she meets up with another nun and a village priest – and their claims are of something much more sinister.
From there, the battle between good and evil rages…well, let me rephrase that: it doesn’t exactly “rage” – instead, it simmers but never boils. Unfortunately for those who came looking for some serious Father Karras action will more than likely be disappointed. The performances border on labored with cursory characters, and outside of some beautiful cinematography, this one failed to chew out of its five-point restraints.
I’d normally prattle on and on about this and that, just to keep my word limit at a bit of a stretch, but with this particular presentation, there just isn’t much to bore you all with (see what I just did there). Gens certainly had the right idea when constructing this film according to blueprints…but it’s like one of those pieces of Wal-Mart furniture that when you open the box, all you can find are the instructions that aren’t in your language – wing and a prayer…but we all know what prayers get you, don’t we, Father?
My advice to all who come seeking some hellacious activity – stick to The Exorcist and you’ll never be let down.
The Crucifixion is one of those films that needs the help of the man above in order to raise its faith, but I think he might have been out to lunch when this one came around.
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