The Devil's Carnival is a macabre music hall vision of hell. A grieving father, a bad boy-obsessed teenage girl, and a jewel-hungry egomaniac become the star attractions in a nightly circus of terror and punishment. Guided by Aesop's fables and a talented cast of wicked performers, the devil thrusts the unknowing stars into ironic tales of cosmic justice. Despite a slow start, The Devil's Carnival quickly outclasses the post-Chicago style of big screen musicals. Each story contained within the framing device could be told without music. All of them have been many times before. The broad and bawdy music hall style makes the stories so much more specific and terrifying.
Music hall is the British equivalent of vaudeville. The key difference is the cohesion of the style. Vaudeville was clearly marked by separate specialty acts grouped together; music hall performances maintained a stronger comedic tone throughout the acts.
The Devil's Carnival uses the circus setting to justify the stage conceits. Cardboard sets, elaborate specialty acts, exaggerated hair and makeup, and wild audience participation seem authentic to the big top. However, it is the music hall standards that define the sideshow under the tent, not the circus itself.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman knows how to stage a song to have just as much impact as a bloody gag in a horror. Even if the actors are static, the camera keeps moving in unexpected ways to build suspense and intrigue. Full bodies are shown during musical staging and dances (a rarity nowadays), while the straight acting scenes are more atmospheric and masked. Bousman coaxes broad, play to the back row performances out of every cast member. The exaggeration sells the stage tactics while the carnival setting raises it to the visual standards of cinema.
The result is a surrealist music hall nightmare of irony and justice. These are characters so obsessed with their roles in the carnival that they want everyone to recognize them immediately. The employees all desperately want to be the stars and the unwilling guest stars are so obsessed with their own baggage that they don't even consider conforming to standards.
The adventurous score by screenwriter/composer Terrance Zdunich and composer Saar Hendelman is tailored perfectly to the cast. Marc Senter's love song as The Scorpion allows his indie rock tenor to swing between traditional leading man and campy villain. Briana Evigan gets to vamp and belt her way through both parts of a duet as the kleptomaniac Ms. Merryweather. Returning Bousman horror musical collaborators Alexa Vega and Bill Moseley set the tone for the entire film with the first big song and dance number.
The only real flaw in the film is directly connected to that demented vamp of a circus march. For some reason, The Devil's Carnival opens with a soft lullaby played over scenes of various characters in the film. It doesn't drive the story or really match the broader style of the rest of the film. There's an argument to make for artistic purpose (they're not in the carnival yet, so the music and tone would be different), but the opening song is just too static and understated to leave an impression.
It takes almost ten minutes for the first big song to be performed, not just played, onscreen. This wouldn't be an issue in a longer musical. Unfortunately, The Devil's Carnival is just under an hour long.
Once the carnival conceit kicks in, The Devil's Carnival is a thrilling ride through a bizarre vision of hell. The songs are catchy and actually advance the story. Best of all, this is unquestionably a horror musical and it works. Of the genres most commonly attempted, horror is the hardest style of musical to get right. The Devil's Carnival avoids the pitfalls of too much camp or irrelevant but scary songs with style and depth.
Thoughts? Apparently, Bousman and Zdunich plan on two more episodes of The Devil's Carnival and Zdunich has them written already. You can stream the first on Hulu right now. Trust me when I say it works better as a musical, not just a horror story with music, than Repo: The Genetic Opera.