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