If you’re an average, normal thinking person, you feel deep down that there is something inherently creepy about clowns. Given the cinematic context clues from everyone from Pennywise in IT, Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses, Stitches, the ‘Killer Klowns’ (from outer space) and hell, even that midget clown in Xtro, there is more than enough to suggest the whole lot of them just aren’t right.
So taking all of that into account, a film like Billy Pon’s Circus of the Dead has a lot going for it right from the starting gate. You’re dealing with a wealth of imagery that unsettles folks with greater abandon than, say, yet another dusty old vampire story. And Pon’s creative team takes full advantage of this loaded deck by stocking their film with a truckload of unpleasant things that play right into the whole mythos of the evil clown.
Circus of the Dead uses the traveling circus framework to provide locomotion from one town to another for a band of murderous, avenging
angel type clowns lead by the dynamic and intense Papa Corn (the excellent Bill Oberst Jr). They use this mobile stage to exact a type of ritualistic revenge that is something akin to Jigsaw’s mad plan through the sin filter of Seven.
The trouble is that, for even the most insane of plans, one must have some level of adherence to rules or a grander plan. In the case of Papa Corn, his emerging craziness and sadism can’t really be contained in the pages of a well-honed playbook so once you get to about fourth gear with him and his crew, all bets are off. While this is fun in the mayhem sense, it starts to feel a little haphazard as it all relates to longevity and survival. Basically, unless you are disciplined in carrying out your plan in town after town, the law is going to catch up with you. So if the viewer is meant to believe that Papa Corn keeps up this murderous rampage in the name of punishing the wicked (as it were) one place after the next, the suspension of disbelief must be held very high.
Because after we’ve met Papa Corn and started to understand the depths of his insanity and his cruelty and feel pity for the small west Texas town family that have stumbled into his sights – we’re shown that he really doesn’t have his act together but never really seems to be held to account for it. Further, that because he is so boundless in his depravity (watching amorously through a cheating couple’s window in one scene, accosting a store clerk in another), he would leave an amazing trail of forensic evidence behind and not really realize it.
So once we’ve arrived at the fever pitch of the film you have a pretty road-rambling, fun and all together nutty bit of bloody badness that seems to mix elements of Doug Liman’s Go and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers into a mostly effective soup of brisk action with very little regard to the bounds of logic. So while it is fun to watch the clowns ‘do their thing’ it is also frustrating because there seems to be no consequences and no connection to reality. This weighs it down some and creates some gaps in pacing that would be better served by a foil of some kind, some type of opposing force instead of more clown insanity.
Outside of Oberst’s Papa Corn and his right hand clown Mister Blister (the comic-perfect Rusty Edwards), the rest feel like add-on and don’t require the kind of time and attention they are given. This takes nothing away from the rest of the troupe for existing in the film at all, because they give it flavor, but a little bit of the supporting cast goes a long way. The same could be said of the family that runs afoul of Papa Corn, as they feel more like fodder and not formidable. Sometimes slasher films just need victims but given the moral-angel-of-death thing that have going, more heft for the family of potential victims would have added more to the overall stakes of the film.
When it is all said and done, Circus of the Dead shows a lot of spirit and a lot of energy when it comes to art direction and shooting style and unapologetic bloody violence. It suffers in the real-life stakes that ground a gonzo parade of this kind which ends up sucking a little bit of the life out of what should (and often are) bracing, chilling displays of evil by a stand-on-his-own character like Papa Corn. And while you can certainly see the limits of budget and resources in some areas, the ambition shown in others is just excellent. It doesn’t all work and it doesn’t all flow but it does show guts and sometimes that is all you really need for an hour and half. A pretty kick-ass soundtrack including San Antonio’s Piñata Protest doesn’t hurt either.
So if you’re looking for a grindy, meanly funny bit of clownsploitation horror drug through the dirt of west Texas, seek out this evil traveling sideshow when you can and decide for yourself.