Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood
The three members of the Norris family get a job at Malatesta’s Carnival, an old run-down amusement park with low attendance that has clearly seen better days. But they’re not there because they’re desperate for a paycheck. Their employment is just an easy way to infiltrate the park and search for their son, who disappeared some time ago while visiting the carnival. They know the place is highly suspicious and filled with eccentrics, but they don’t really know what to expect. Turns out they should have brought in some kind of back-up. Because no matter what their plans or expectations were, I guarantee they in no way envisioned having to contend with a creepy vampiric manager, or a magical owner with his own personal gaggle of wild relatives who seem intent on feasting on unsuspecting human flesh.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood has an interesting history. The film was directed by Christopher Speeth and written by Werner Liepolt, and was the only film either man ever made, and for about 30-years, the film was thought to be lost. As the story goes, Malatesta’s premier was so horrid, and the film was so poorly received by the audience, that the filmmakers panicked, pulled all copies of the film from distribution and had as many copies as they could find destroyed. So beyond some seedy drive-ins in the southern US, and the occasional showing at the Pantages Theater, the movie was essentially little more than a long forgotten footnote. Until about three decades later, when Christopher Speeth found a copy and started selling DVDs of the film on his website in the early 2000’s. And thus, a lost relic was rediscovered. Was it worth it? Well, Arrow Video thought well of it enough to give it an upgraded Bluray release, but no matter how interestingly unique the film is, it’s clearly only going to appeal to a specific audience.
The movie itself almost feels like a surrealist fever dream. Or, this was the 70s, so maybe it’s more accurate to describe it as an acid trip. Parts of it feel like it’s trying very hard to mimic Carnival of Souls, and other parts remind me of those old 70’s educational shorts. You know, the ones they used to pull out and play on those old projectors in school when the teachers needed a break for 20 minutes? Those lame ‘arty’ things that were trying to teach us something, but just ended up being weird and never made a lick of sense? Yeah, those things. For most of the movie I was half expecting some monotone narrator to just sporadically pop in with some lame life lesson or warning involving the dangers of curiosity or strangers, or some such nonsense. That’s how similar some of the filming styles feel.
Though some narration might have actually been helpful. Because if you’re the type of person who likes a coherent story, then you’re going to seriously HATE this movie. The plot, what little of it there is, is slowly spoon-fed to you in drips and drabs, and even then very little of it makes sense and it’s mostly done by the visuals, and barely by the movie itself. And even when they do explain things clearly, you’re never given the full picture. Like, we never figure out what the motives of half the characters are, why they’re there or what they want. Everything just sort of…. is, I guess. How did Scene A lead to Scene B? No idea! Just roll with it! And the Norris’ son? We never figure out what happened to him either. Hell, he’s not even given the dignity of a name. He’s just referred to as “Him”. I’m beginning to suspect that he doesn’t even exist and is just a cover for the Norris family’s weird spy fantasies that seem to have gotten out of hand.
But those are plot related points, and plot is clearly not the point of this movie. The point of this movie is to take in all the weird visuals and just roll with it. Because if you start trying to think about the film’s ‘story’ as more than just the thin veneer that it is, the movie loses its effect. The film’s focus is on the visuals and atmosphere, which it manages to pull off extremely well considering its budget was considered modest even by ‘cheap-o, low-budget shocker’ standards. The movie was filmed at Willow Grove Park, an old amusement park in Willow Grove Pennsylvania that was basically on its deathbed by the time the filmmakers got there (the park closed a year later). So all the film’s exteriors were all shot at a location that already looks like it’s been abandoned for a decade, yet it still has people wandering around playing carnival games, which really adds to the unreal, dream-like aesthetic, even when the film isn’t trying to be dreamlike. But then you add in the interiors and that’s when the film starts to feel really wonkey. Just about everything “inside” the carnival looks to be made out of some sort of repurposed trash. It’s all there: Mountains of rubbish, old crumpled newspaper, pieces of mylar, junk cars, old toys, painters plastic, and what looks to be miles upon miles of red bubble wrap are used on damn near everything. And I mean everything. I used to visit a friend who worked at a shipping store, and I swear even they didn’t have that much bubble wrap on hand. It’s insane. And yet the shabby, junk-chic style seems to work with and complement all pre-existing rickety buildings, peeling paint, and water-damaged walls. Amongst all that a bunch of gray-faced ghouls running around that look like they just walked off the set of Carnival of Souls, eating human flesh, and fawning over the various projected silent movies that seem to be playing nonstop in the basement seems to fit in perfectly, as opposed to feeling out of place. So it’s all very weird, but in a trippy way, it works.
I’m…not even going to try to speculate about what this represents. I mean, I could, but why do that to myself, ya know?
And I really wasn’t kidding about the bubble wrap.
The acting is sort of all over the place, which actually fits in well with a film like this. Some people handle their roles extremely well (even if they do sometimes come across as cheesy) and with others you can tell that there’s a definite lack of experience involved. Some performances do come across as a bit over the top and odd, but then again the movie itself is a bit odd, so in the end nothing winds up feeling too terribly distracting or out of place.
I think Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood’s biggest setback is that it’s really only going to appeal to a very niche audience. It’s a grind-house looking flick, with a dingy setting, guts, gore and a lot of bright red blood on display. But it’s also not a particularly violent film, and the inclusion of the surrealist, dream-like atmosphere filled with do-it-yourself sets made out of trash makes most of the movie feel trippy as hell. I’m not surprised that most of the audience at the premiere weren’t enamored by it. I guarantee this wasn’t at all what they were expecting to see when they walked into the theater. But while I agree that the movie has its fair share of glaring problems, like story, sound and some serious pacing and framing issues, I’m not going to boo at it and throw my popcorn at the screen (I hate having to clean up unnecessary messes.) The movie’s not perfect, and it’s not something that I feel I’d come back to often, if at all, but I’ll admit that it is interesting. It’s a curious attempt at a horror art film on a massively downsized budget, and you just don’t see stuff like that very often. So if you’re a fan of the obscure or the odd, and can appreciate the visuals, then this could be an interesting film to check out.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is available on a variety of streaming services.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is also available on DVD and Bluray.