There are lots of famous examples of the oddteur - Coleman Francis and his brain-dead neo neo-realism, Doris Wishman and her flesh-based French New Wavering - but the best models of this kind of misguided mise-en-scene are those pictogram personas that made their stifled cinematic statement, and then just faded away. Manos main man Hal Warren was back to shilling fertilizer after his one attempt at Satanic strangeness. Warlock Moon's Bill Herbert took an abandoned health club and turned it into his own claustrophobic and confused psychological thriller before slinking into obscurity.
Then there is Christopher Eric Speeth, perhaps the very definition of the oddteur. Before heading off for a career in documentaries, Mr. Speeth wrote and directed a foul little fable called Malatesta's Carnival of Blood about a supernatural fair filled with vampires, ghouls, cannibals and the most horrible of all horrors - the carny! Mired in a decidedly experimental design, and using more visual tricks than a Moby Grape Electric Banana Fantastic light show, what he ended up with was a movie so phantasmagoric that the distributor didn't know what to do with it. It reluctantly got a few passion pit play dates and then disappeared. Now, thanks to DVD, this forgotten freak out is again available for viewing. And it's just as confusing and chaotic as it was 32 years ago.
Mr. Blood, who manages the rundown and derelict place, is actually a vampire, who needs the claret of tourists to stay alive. The carnival itself is manned by a family of cannibals, all of whom have been taught to eat human flesh by their deranged daddy, Mr. Bean (no, not that one). Any visitor who stumbles into the wrong place at the wrong time will find themselves in an evil underground lair where Mr. Malatesta himself does insane autopsy-like experiments and screens old horror films, much to the pale people-eaters delight. Naturally, the Norris's become the latest example of long pig fricassee, which is a dietary staple at Malatesta's Carnival of Blood.
If you need proof that horror movies and peyote don't mix, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is your own personal psycho cinema PSA. Like the Manson Family version of Tobe Hooper's Funhouse, or a hippie film festival gone gangrenous, this 1973 nightmare of a movie is a big, sprawling, rambling mess. Director Christopher Eric Speeth is from the suggested narrative school of filmmaking, since plot is more or less hinted at, but never mentioned outright. We never understand anything throughout the course of this baffling blitzkrieg of boos. To call this a labor of love would be inferring effort and affection where none obviously reside, and the only way this movie could earn a cult classic status is by actually mimicking the death throws of the Rev. Jim Jones and the rest of his Kool-aid drinking buddies.
Legend has it that the movie played a few dates in Southern drive-ins before stepping off into the haze of myth. In some ways, we wish it had remained lost. Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is a pile of good ideas tossed together and dressed with an odd, almost arcane sense of presentation. It's easy to see why it was memorable to fans 30+ years ago - but that's not to say the recollections are that accurate...or favorable.
This is a movie that you will either immediately sync up with and love outright, drinking in its deranged atmosphere and stylistic idiosyncrasies, or it's a film you'll despise like those ill-fitting corduroy pants you received as a graduation present. Speeth makes it impossible to tread the middle ground - his mannerisms are too bizarre, way too drenched in Psyched by the 4-D Witch weirdness and the acid rock realizations of late 60s/early 70s filmmaking to create common ground. Many of the sequences are effective at keeping the audience off kilter and anxious. And when dealing with a dilapidated carnival as a setting, we get a lot of inherent heebie jeebies.
But Speeth can't fully deliver on his paranormal promise. Parts of Malatesta's Carnival of Blood are confusing. They have labels like "the beginning", "the middle" and "the end". Action does not follow a logical pattern. Flashbacks occur at random and without warning. We are as apt to fall into a dream sequence as we are to witness a perfectly good (but brief) gore killing. The combination of surrealism and splatter should be very effective, but Speeth is not able to marry the elements into an overall successful shape.
Certainly, several scenes can be deemed unnerving. When Vena's older brother goes on his fateful late night rollercoaster ride, the suspense is heightened by the decision to utilize the natural lack of lighting. We never know when the deathblow will be delivered, and this makes us anxious for the boy. Equally, when the bug-eyed janitorial goon Sticker chases Vena and Kit among the ruins of the rundown carnival, the use of the decrepit backdrop is a genius stroke on Speeth's part. Such a setting is picture perfect for a horror film, as the midway and sideshow always seem to be hiding something secretively sinister behind their prize booths and rides.
The whole cannibal theme is underdeveloped and rather routine, even by 1973 standards. While the quirks help to carry the subversive style along (it appears the flesh eaters wile away their time watching classic horror films, even going so far as to talk back to the screen and throw popcorn on occasion), Speeth doesn't have enough to loose us in his fright-based fantasy. Instead, we occasionally feel like we've stepped into some sour experimental theater performance - and forgot to pick up a Playbill on the way in.
There are factors outside the filmmaking that also make this movie difficult to digest. It has to be said that, without a doubt, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood contains quite possibly the ugliest cast in the history of horror films, starting with its lead actress. Janine Carazo is one uninviting babe, looking far more mannish than girlish and delivering her dopey dialogue through a constant veil of matted, unwashed, shag cut hair. When we do see her life mask mug, it's enough to verify the movie's terror overtones.
Yet she is hardly a match for Betsy Henn as Mrs. Norris, who gives new meaning to the term odious. Wearing a head full of curlers for most of the movie, she looks like Herman Munster after a sex change and several visits to Joan Rivers' plastic surgeon (too bad the doc couldn't do anything about those rampant pockmarks, honey). Her husband, Paul Hostetler is so grizzled and bearded that a certain Mr. Adams is suing for copyright infringement. Add in the numerous flower children zombies, many of whom share an innate ability to sing madrigals while attending hideous ritualistic sacrifices, and the creepy title couple themselves, Dr. Blood and Mr. Malatesta (resembling a bad lounge act from Reno circa 1962) and you've got a company so crappy you violate universal human rights just thinking about them.
All vile visuals aside however, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is definitely worth a viewing, if only to be reminded of how horror was handled back before critics took it semi-seriously. This half-baked brain blot is all imagination and inflection. Nothing is normal, and just when you think it might explain itself away, Speeth steps in to pull the rug of reality out from under you once again. The setting is superb - again, nothing says spooky like abandoned amusement park rides - and the film has a fatalism that you don't usually get in outsider cinema.
Naturally, there is also a drag act full of camp and kitsch here, especially in the odd juxtaposition of ideas within the storyline. It is hard to fathom what Speeth is trying to say with his mostly Renaissance Fair ready cast, or the weirdness that accompanies any appearance by Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey's line readings are the very definition of clipped). Above the title star Hervé Villechaize, playing a manbrat named Bobo, has little more than a cameo, croaking his rhyming couplet dialogue in an accent so thick you'd think Charo was his voice coach.
It all ends up being kind of messy, kind of misguided and kind of memorable. True, there isn't a lot of menace or macabre to be found here - the gore is glimpsed, but the killings occasionally occur where the audience cannot see them, or are quickly edited away. And since logic and rationality have little place in Speeth's motion picture modus operandi, the feeling of directorial disorientation can be quite severe. Still, if you give the film a chance to unfold, if you simply let Speeth be Speeth, you'll get a kick out of some of the scenarios he drags you through.
This is not your normal drive-in classic from the early 70s however, filled with beasts, blood and breasts. This is what happens when you drink the water flowing beneath the log flume ride, or drop acid, eat too many deep fried funnel cakes, and enter the demonic dark ride at the end of the midway. Malatesta's Carnival of Blood may not be a classic, but it does contain a decisive doorway into Christopher Eric Speeth's addteurism. And what a mescaline-laced madhouse it is.