Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Devil's Carnival

First things first; I'm going to shake up the format of this particular blog entry. Instead of my trusty "PROS/CONS/VERDICT" standby, I'm just going to lay out what the experience of attending The Devil's Carnival was like as best I can and let you draw your own conclusions. This is partially because my usual model isn't quite suited to conveying what The Devil's Carnival is totally like, and partially for the sake of keeping things fresh.

But first, a brief preface for those of you who don't know what The Devil's Carnival is:

I really can't say it better than creators Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saw II-IV, Repo! The Genetic Opera, and a few lesser-known miscellaneous horror movies) and Terrance Zdunich (co-creator of Repo! in addition to portraying Lucifer in The Devil's Carnival and The Graverobber in Repo!) did in a previous interview, The Devil's Carnival is "a cross between Tales from the Crypt and the anti-f*cking Glee." Well said, gents! When the two collaborated on one of my personal favorites, the post-apocalyptic goth opera Repo! The Genetic Opera a few years ago, distributing studio Lionsgate didn't feel the piece was up to a wide release and gave it a very limited engagement; something like 6 or 7 screens nationwide. Instead of whining about "the Man," Terrance and Darren took it upon themselves to promote the film with a nationwide road tour; tagging in cast and crew members from the film to sign autographs and chat with fans along the way. The tour was a great success, and spawned two more. When the dynamic duo was unable to get Lionsgate (who now owns Repo!, unfortunately) to greenlight a sequel, they fell back to another project: The Devil's Carnival. Seeking to "create an experience you can't download" and bring back "what makes going to the movies fun," the two scraped and scrounged and put together the budget they needed to fund the project on their own. Bypassing the studio system completely, the two took The Devil's Carnival on the road - much like Repo! before it - with members of the cast and crew along for the ride.

I had the good fortune of grabbing tickets for a last-minute encore presentation in Los Angeles - a stop that coincided with my vacation in the Sunshine State nicely.

I went to The Devil's Carnival with my good buddy Andy, a fellow cinephile. He and I are something of a Mark-and-Jeremy from the British sitcom "Peep Show," with (hopefully) a bit less anti-social tendencies...and with American accents, sometimes.

We arrived early enough to be at basically the front of the line, while the next hour or so saw the gaggle of attendees stretch so far down the street behind us I couldn't exactly see where it ended. We were surrounded by a veritable treasure trove of "alternative lifestyle" folk; from post-ops (I think), pre-ops, (I'm sure), goths, attendees in costume as various Carnival characters, and then basically us: the two white guys in regular clothes at the front of the line. Some might have found the spread a bit too counter-culture, but personally I enjoy the company of those society labels 'freaks' or 'outcasts.' Their presence proves that not every subculture has been bastardized by hipsters and people obsessed with how meta everything is. Standing in line, there was no grand sense of pretense and for me personally, that put everything right on track for a great time.

I noticed Mika Boorem milling around the door, though I didn't remember her name at the time. I saw her for a moment and thought "That face looks like a 10 to 12-years-older version of a face in my memory" and after a couple of minutes sleuthing film credits on my phone pinned down her identity. For those who don't quite remember, she played the elder daughter in Mel Gibson's The Patriot and a young Charlize Theron in Mighty Joe Young - among other things...hence the gap in my memory as to what she looked like. Fairly inconsequential for the rest of the attendees, as I didn't notice anyone else noticing her. But for me it raised the bar a bit - seeing celebrities not directly attached to the project show up.

A little closer to the lifting of the curtain, Darren walked by, looking like the charming homeless version of J.J. Abrams that he does. Even with the anticipation mounting, you could sense that everyone there - from Darren himself to the gorgeous ticket-girl(s) - was on equal footing. We were all there to support an "underground" film, part of a dark little family stitched together for a few hours in North Hollywood; no one more important than the other.

Finally the line started slinking into the theater, and as Andy and I took our seats, I noticed Emilie Autumn immediately in the row in front of us - chatting with her Bloody Crumpet compadre Captain Maggot. Both of them Devil's Carnival cast members, they were just getting ready for the show and all that good stuff right in front of us - within arm's length. It took a few minutes for the rest of the attendees to file in and find seats, during which Andy and I joked back and forth about the implications of going to something called The Devil's Carnival on any given Sunday, and on Mother's Day no less.

The lights dimmed a bit and the focus was directed to the front of the theater, in which a brief "sideshow" was being performed. Namely, a woman was performing "The Human Blockhead" which involved her hammering and powertool-ing a nail and a screw into her head, respectively. Typical sideshow carnival stuff - accompanied by a girl in a creepy clown getup playing a gleeful carnie tune on a piano. The sideshow concluded, and a brief behind-the-scenes featurette of Repo! began, complete with sing-along! Being the pretentious film goer I am, I cursed the words for dancing at the bottom of the screen because I wanted to impress everyone within earshot with how well I knew the lyrics to this song. My gestures were futile, as I knew they would be, as the whole theater was singing along anyway, and I further cursed not having the opportunity to join the Repo! Road Tour back when it was making the rounds.

The Repo! featurette ended, and The Devil's Carnival began. It's technically a short film, clocking in at almost exactly 60 minutes. The movie follows 3 people down to Hell where they re-enact tableaus of Aesop's Fables - with the implication being that the lessons taught in the fable relate to the follies that led them to Hell in the first place. For example, a girl (Briana Evigan) who clearly spent her life in pursuit of jewelry and fineries finds herself playing the role of the dog in "The Dog and Her Reflection." True to the "anti-f*cking Glee" nature of the film, each tale is overlaid with a song or songs that further elucidate the moral of the story.

The music was LOUD. I mean...whew. It became genuinely difficult to enjoy the film (for me) with a deafening soundtrack, and I generally like deafening soundtracks. Carnie music isn't exactly my cup of tea though - a brisk staccato pace carried mostly by brass instruments and drums. Think Danny Elfman's music played twice as fast, twice as menacing, and competing with a jet engine for audibility. The lyrics (when I could catch them) were very well-crafted and poetic, and the music itself isn't entirely unsavory; but played at that level didn't wholly endear me to the genre.

The film concluded, while not on a cliffhanger per se, but definitely with the implication that this is just the beginning. Actually, it was less an implication and more of a mantra. During the Q&A that followed (which was preceded by a brief costume contest) Terrance and Darren explained - among other things - that what they're trying to do with The Devil's Carnival is "build a brand." They've already written Episode 2 and essentially had it on hold pending how well the road tour did. All indications during the show were that the road tour has been successful enough to warrant production on the next installment and to hear the two of them talk about it - like the fanboys that they are - it sounds like that's on the top of their To-Do List.

The Q&A wrapped up and fans swarmed the gathering of cast and crew down at the front of the theater. Tactfully - I thought - I decided to hang back and hit them up on their way out of the theater and into the lobby, which is where I assumed they would take pictures, sign autographs, and generally schmooze. Ultimately, they kind of scattered on their own individually, but I did manage to shake hands with and chat briefly with Terrance. I can confirm for any fangirls reading this that he is absolutely as charming and down-to-earth as you'd expect. And that voice that had you all swooning in your black boots and corsets? It's totally how he talks in real life. I swooned a little bit. As I touched on briefly before, Terrance confirmed what I feared: there will be no Repo! sequel. Since Lionsgate owns Repo!, Terrance said that The Devil's Carnival "is our Repo! sequel." Admittedly, I was a little distraught. But the news is tempered by the fact that Terrance and Darren haven't come close to giving up what they do.

I also briefly managed to snag Alexa Vega before she was whisked away by one of the ticket girls. If you ever get a chance to chat with that young woman, I highly recommend you do so. Yes, she's attractive. But she's also as cool a chick as you're likely to meet - and very down-to-earth. Like "I-walked-up-just-to-say-I-had-a-great-time-and-she-asked-and-remembered-my-name" down-to-earth. And while I'm bragging on the internet, I also got a hug from her in parting; and not some half-ass side hug either.

As a whole, Terrance and Darren and their cohorts have done exactly what they set out to do: create an experience you can't download and more importantly, one you wouldn't want to even if you could. The Devil's Carnival was like a thin 3-hour slice of being at a film festival. The Q&A's, the presence of cast and crew, and just the sheer high of feeling as though you're on the creative cutting edge; it all adds up to a brilliantly unique experience. The film itself was not my favorite, in all honesty. It's not bad, it's just not my particular cup of tea, and had I just seen the film at home on my computer one afternoon I probably wouldn't have been all that jazzed about the project. But take the movie on the road, bring everyone you made it with along for the ride, and make a point to engage the fanbase at a grassroots level - I'm there. It's precisely the kind of "business model" that I think could make a drastic difference in the way films are made and shown. Terrance and Darren aren't sitting somewhere whining about piracy and how it's destroying their craft, and on the flipside they're not eating out of the corporate trough while damning The Man. Instead, they're getting out there and making sacrifices and doing what they love - without trying to make millions of dollars in the rat race of fame. And I was proud to be a part of that tour and supporting them in their efforts.

I'll be at one or more of the stops along the way when episode 2 comes down the pike, and I can't recommend more highly that you do the same. Even if a 60-minute musical about postmodern examples of Aesop's Fables isn't the kind of movie you normally go for, do it anyway. Go for the potential education on independent filmmaking. Go for the costumes. Go for the celebrity appearances. Go for the sheer non-mainstreamness of it all! It's wicked fun.