Musicals and horror films have been mixing since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but not often. Director Darren Lynn Bousman has now tackled two with Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil's Carnival, both written by Terrence Zdunich. The former became an unlikely cult success with Bousman's fans; the latter hit high notes as well, and it appears a Devil's Carnival 2 is in the works.
The idea of the film sounds pretty awesome, even with its musical stylings. Three people are brought to the devil's carnival during some intense situations happening in their lives; they meet up at the carnival, experience some of the tricks and fables of the bigtop, and then must choose between a life of Hell or a life of Heaven, although none of them really know all of this is going on. The carnival itself is an elaborate stage full of goth performers and strange bedecked troupes, and the film doesn't try to hide that it's the devil himself who has commissioned this event.
Bousman's direction is very reminiscent of his Saw days; since the film is only an hour long, we get to meet the three people in the thick of their life-changing event, and then they're thrown into the devil's carnival to slowly reveal what they did in their past life to cause them this ordeal. John (Sean Patrick Flanery) is in the middle of cutting his wrists when he's transported - he's recently lost his son and has sunk into his own grief. Ms. Merrywood (Briana Evigan) is a thief, and at the time of her capture she's being surrounded by the police and ready to get into a violent shootout. And Tamara (Jessica Lowndes) is a girlfriend who's too trusting with her violent boyfriends, and she's about to be shot in her car during an aggressive fight.
It's quickly apparent when we get to the carnival that the film's a psychedelic musical. Wick (Alexa Vega) hits the music with an intro of sorts, proclaiming we're at the devil's carnival - over and over, mind you. The sinners wander throughout the place, but there's a game afoot thanks to the devil, and each character has their own tormentor. Merrywood gets the Twin, a man who can reflect anyone's face to show them who they really are. Tamara gets a greaser who throws knives, which helps to play up the pun about men and "pricks" in the next musical number. And John gets the devil himself after he pushes into his lair, hoping to find his son hidden away in there.
There's a lot of interesting things going on in The Devil's Carnival, but a lot of it is fairly apparent from the beginning. The surprise twists aren't that surprising, since these stories are more like fables with obvious endings. The devil gives the characters their choices, and the morals of each story are inherent from the beginning. But the tricks thrown at them are the interesting parts of the story - each carnival freak has their own weird way, and from the looks of the troupe, there are more tricks up their sleeve.
The musical numbers, however, quickly become tiresome. The writing is fairly weak in a lot of the songs, and the best one was actually cut from the theatrical part of the film - it appears in the credits as an add-on, but it's the most well-written of the lot. Zdunich has a tendency to repeat himself in song; most of the have one phrase that's sung over and over and over again until the score has worn its welcome. Some of the songs occurring after a trick simply repeat the story of that trick in fable form, like a moral - they become unnecessary narrative pieces that feel incorporated simply to get a song in.
This makes for a wildly erratic experience. It's easy to get sucked into the idea of the carnival, and the set pieces are fantastically elaborate. But the story itself is predictable, and the singing seems misplaced in parts. If one enjoys musicals, there are better written ones out there; but when it comes to horror musicals, The Devil's Carnival at least captures a strange and off-kilter tone with its band of memorable carnies. It just depends on whether musicals carry a tune for you, and this one's hellish.
The Devil's Carnival on Rotten Tomatoes