Welcome to Cult Corner where we dive through the bargain bins to determine if a movie is trash or treasure. Today’s pick… Sheldon Wilson’s Carny.
Carny opens as a carnival freak show buys a dangerous “animal” to be their new act. Things go awry in a scene that reminds me heavily of the opening to Jurassic Park. Soon enough that creature breaks free completely, but not before a local cop starts investigating their troupe and the town pastor starts rallying people against them. The monster they accidentally let loose is just the icing on the cake by that point.
The cast of Carny is actually pretty decent, especially for this kind of movie. The characters are also more well-written than I expected to see. Alan C Peterson plays the owner of the carnival and he absolutely hams it up. His character is sinister and vile, but he gets this smarmy grin on his face every time he’s dealing with the cops. Vlasta Vrána plays the pastor that absolutely hates the carnival for some reason at the beginning and then for a very good reason later on. He gets some of the best moments in the movie and really goes through an emotional ringer. The movie focuses on Sheriff Atlas, played by Lou Diamond Phillips and he’s actually far less memorable. He’s not bad, but his character just isn’t as interesting as these more over the top caricatures. It sort of works, since he’s the everyman just caught in the middle and you can feel that he’s in over his head.
While the monster is flying around picking people off (as monsters do) there are three parties all trying to capture or kill it for their own reasons, and that’s what makes the movie engaging for me. Peterson’s character Cap wants to capture the monster and bring it back to the freak show, so he’s set on finding it before the sheriff does. The sheriff just wants everyone to be safe so he’s dead set on putting it down. The pastor has more personal reasons to go after it, but he blames both other parties for everything that has happened. This dynamic is really interesting and gives us something to latch onto when the monster isn’t onscreen. I complain a lot about monster movies not giving us enough monster, but this is a great example of a film that could get away with it. As long as you write interesting characters and put them in a situation that creates tension you don’t need to throw blood and guts at us every other second.
The last act of this movie is great, and could have been even better. Things really get heated and there’s a bit of a twist that’s very character-driven, which was a surprise. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite have the impact it would have had they invested some time into certain other characters, but it’s still pretty nice to see them go into an unexpected direction.
As far as the monster goes it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s done with practical effects and they look great. We see it in the dark in brief flashes or small glimpses and it works. I don’t know how well the puppet would hold up if we held it under a microscope but for what they do with it the thing looks fantastic. For more of the full body shots where we need to see the whole thing moving around they use CGI and the quality is very inconsistent. Sometimes it looks like complete garbage. It’ll be flying through the air and its wings aren’t even moving. Other times it looks great. There are some close ups of its face snarling that look really good. The only thing I can attribute this to is maybe the lighting. When it’s in shadow it looks better, but even then there are shots that stick out.
The CGI isn’t the only inconsistent thing about this film though. Most of the movie is pretty good, as I’ve already said, but on occasion something will happen that is just Ed Wood levels of hilariously awful. Some of the practical effects look terrible. There’s an eyeball gore scene that looks like something you’d buy at Spencer’s Gifts as a gag. There’s a death scene that involves a body falling onto a car, and it’s so blatantly a dummy that I burst out laughing. It’s not even subtle. There are also a lot of scenes where people get pulled away by nothing. I realize the monster is supposed to be just offscreen, but they really need to film something like that in a particular way. It comes off like a shot they meant to CGI but never got around to finishing.
Carny is not the movie I expected it to be, not even slightly. It’s called Carny, so I figured I’d be in for a carnival freak show themed slasher film in the vein of Funhouse. Instead, this is a straight up “monster on the loose” film, about a gargoyle killing people out in the woods. For what it is it’s pretty good. The characters are interesting and the cast does an admirable job. The effects are uneven but usually decent. There are some moments that stick out like a sore thumb in terms of awfulness, but they’re at least funny. I feel like the carnival setting was squandered a bit, but I’m alright with that. This one is worth checking out if the mood strikes to see a flying bat thing chomp down on everything in site.
Here at Cult Corner we cover the weird and obscure. Given the low budget that these movies often have we feel the need to recognize that entertainment value and quality aren’t always synonymous. That’s why we have opted for the “trash or treasure” approach in lieu of a typical rating system. After all, Troll 2 is incredibly entertaining but it’s no 8 out of 10.