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“CIRCUS OF THE DEAD” (Film Review)

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A weathered mannequin bust sits atop a vanity table dressed in a police cap and mustache evocative of Adolf Hitler. “Doo Wacka Doo”, a benevolent song from the 1940’s, plays with the scratch-crackle only vinyl records make.  We see a hand dip into a retro can of white cream, painting the face of a woman not fully in view.  With the swirl of an antique Barber chair the disturbingly beautiful masterpiece is finally revealed. A dead woman is seated; head cocked to the side. Her face made up with white clown makeup; a blue color on the tip of her nose.  In her hands a beautiful glass display showcases her crudely extracted heart.

With this grim opening, we enter the heartless and visually stunning world encased inside Billy “Bloody Bill” Pon’s debut feature film, CIRCUS OF THE DEAD. Instinctively, horror fans may associate the title with zombies or the supernatural and silly goons from KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988). However, hovering somewhere between realism and dystopia, CIRCUS OF THE DEAD invokes characters more reminiscent of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and an atmosphere comparative to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). It’s dark stuff indeed.

Emmy Award-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. (ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES, RESOLUTION) stars and gives the performance of his career this far, fitting like a glove into the role of the malevolent anti-hero Papa Corn with unrelenting brilliance.This self-proclaimed “homicidal serial rapist whose day job happens to be a clown” is patriarch to a creepy brood that includes plus-sized cannibal named Noodledome (Ryan Clapp), an oddly appealing and aloof pyromaniac Mr. Blister (Rusty Edwards), and Jumbo (Mike Williams) whose small size comes in handy when victims least expect. Together this band of brutal buffoons cleverly hide from consequence under heavy make-up and the transient nature of the circus.

The madness begins when Papa Corn scans the audience on opening night; setting his sights on everyman Donald Johnson (Parrish Randall), his wife Tiffany (Chanel Ryan), and their two young daughters in the circus bleachers. Gaining information about the family from a raffle prize form it isn’t long before the clowns invade their home with the utmost force and brutality.  Don is taken hostage and dragged through his West Texas town, hidden under sad clown make-up and dressed in prisoners garb (suggestive of a concentration camp victim). He is trapped and given ultimatums; forced to either commit atrocities on unsuspecting store clerks, police officers, and even children or risk the death of those he loves. How far can Papa Corn push Donald outside his moral compass in order to save his family?

It would have been easy for co-writers Billy Pon and Lee Ankrum to put all their focus into the development of head honcho Papa Corn; skimping on creating any depth for the others in his crew. However despite having almost zero dialogue- there is an impressive and near pristine level of detail given to each of these colorful madmen.

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Marcus Koch’s Oddtopsy FX outfit slit throats, smashes heads, and saw limbs with an icky realism. The skill and creativity put into crafting the body horrors that Noodledome the Clown makes in his trailer are stunning.  I’ve never seen a severed head with a vagina sewn over the mouth or children’s pull toys made of hollowed human skulls. Doubtful you have either…

There is an extensive amount of detail and thought put into every aspect of this film. From inside the dreary dusted light of the transient circus tent to the future-shock fluorescence of the convenience store where they brutalize a cashier (Tiffani Brooke Fest), the film has a technical shine captured in cinematographer Gaeb Ramirez’s exquisitely composed frames. All of these beautifully dark visuals are especially effective when paired with the great soundtrack comprised of 1940’s radio crackle, ominous chants of the circus crowd and a memorable selection of Country/Rockabilly music.

There is no doubt that despite how well crafted this film may be it is not going to be for everyone. With graphic scenes of rape, sadistic torture, humiliation, and even infanticide this is a film that would do well as a double feature with A SERBIAN FILM.  And while both CIRCUS OF THE DEAD and A SERBIAN FILM assault your senses and affect your view of the world you live in, both films are highly competent deconstructions of systematic violence, voyeuristic rape culture, government/police brutality, and the rubbernecking we engage in at the expense of other’s suffering as long as it doesn’t involve us.

This is not violence for violence sake. This is a mirror and if we don’t like what we see there is nobody to blame but ourselves. With CIRCUS OF THE DEAD, Pon has gifted genre fans with a masterfully crafted exemplary work of independent horror cinema, successfully gaping open that fine line between morality and the basest animalistic instinct inside each of us.  The film is has been sweeping the festival circuit and plans for a sequel are already underway.

Look for an interview with Pon in the upcoming FANGORIA #342.

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About the author
Hannah Neurotica
Hannah Neurotica is the founder of Women in Horror Month and the world's first known feminist horror 'zine, Ax Wound: Gender and the Horror Genre.
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