Carnival of Blood (1970) Review by RevTerry

My only experience with carnivals comes from a small racket that would visit an empty lot in my insignificant California town. It was pretty lame. I only remember it because my dirty teenager gang somehow got thrown out three years in a row for being intoxicated, and for a time afterward that was a bragging point for me (mostly while drunk). I don’t remember much of the three evenings in question, but I think they were otherwise uneventful. At one point, I recall someone making a choice between a picture of Britney Spears in a cardboard frame and hopeless goldfish, but I'm not clear on which one they chose. I have spent a lot of time at fairs, as my dad used to sell blenders when I was really young (trust me-- that correlation makes sense). But those had farm animals and bonus washed-up star performances. I don't think Carrot Top was at the carnival or that dude from Herman's Hermits. Other than the fact they serve fried food, real life carnivals seem lame. It's possible, however, that my disposition is incorrect or just due to the era/location I grew up in, because there are some differences in what the media portrays. Fictional traveling carnivals are where the fucking magic goes down in movies-- that's where you get your age advancing fortune from a mechanical guy or your soul captured for eternity by a dude in a top hat (probably Satan). They house unicorns or werewolves in freakshows and spread occultist lore throughout the land. There is always something special about their parking lot occupation or extra attractions not included in the advertising, like a tendency for patrons to throw loud fits and then get torn apart as in Carnival of Blood (1970).
The film opens to some folksy jam about love played over a man and a woman loudly debating whether or not to head home from the carnival. It seems the woman (Linda Kurtz) has not had her fill with the grease-flavored festivities, while her husband (William Grannell from the "Ginger" films), on the other hand, is demanding they leave. The fighting goes on for a while, along with the contrary tune, intercut with credits that display the woman's disembodied head alongside the cast and crew names (she might also be mouthing the lyrics...she is doing something with her mouth). At one point a machete cuts the head in half, and the title card appears. Cut to Dan (Martin Barolsky), sitting on the porch amid a touching moment with his girlfriend Laura (Judith Resnick). While they hold each other, Dan announces that he has just been promoted to the office of the district attorney, and to celebrate, surprises Laura with a ring. She happily congratulates him on the forward movement, puts on the jewelry and leads him inside to do some naked hugging. Shifting back to the less happy couple still divided on leaving (and back to nighttime). As they are walking, a fortune teller (Kaly Mills) lures them in for a quick card reading. The mystic takes hubbies "bowling money," but after babbling for a little bit, appears to get spooked, gravely declares she can no longer speak to them and kicks the complaining pair out. Next, they visit a balloon popping booth operated by a sympathetic Tom (Earle Edgerton) and his unhealthy assistant Gimpy (Burt Young credited as "John Harris"). The man doesn't have much luck, but his wife won't have it and begins demeaning him in front of the crowd. All the loud complaining visibly annoys Tom who hands over a bear, despite the futile attempts to score enough points. With a new stuffed animal in tow, the still unhappy pair come to an agreement that the next cart ride will be the last. As they approach, they are greeted by a recording of overbearing, continuous clown laughter coming from the tunnel. They strap in, and the ride comes alive with a kaleidoscope of imagery. Suddenly the lights flash on and off, then the woman screams as it all goes black. When they come out the other end, it is the man instead who is wailing and sitting next to a bloody headless corpse that is spurting red juice like a ruptured pipe. You would think one person gored in a funhouse would be enough to shut down the ride at least, but as it turns out, this wasn't the first time this has happened. Apparently, someone has been using the carnival as their regular human hunting ground, and the killer has a thing for pissed off ladies. The park has the latest dead-body mess cleaned up remarkably soon, and it's back to business as usual (fried food, clowns, that kind of shit). Everyone seems to get over the tragedy quickly enough, all except for the moderately vigilant Dan, who assigns himself the case. Lucky for him (and justice), there are very few characters at the event with speaking parts so his suspect list should be pretty short.
As it comes in an era before most of the slasher cliches, and probably alongside some hallucinogens, its structure is a unique, broken narrative with little to grab on to. There is no friend group of victims to plow through or lone teenage girl survivor to be forged in blood, and it veers away from its sleazy thriller roots with no substantial focus on the investigator. The plot is almost a series of severed vignettes, where different people generally follow the same path before being murdered in gruesome but funny ways. There is a lot of duologue flying around, but almost no exposition-- just bits of arguments, awkward carnie interaction, and the occasional teddy bear mention. None of the unlikeable patrons give you much to chew on, aside from doofy asshole Dan who seems to be the only one cryptically affected by the foul play at hand at all, if only slightly.  If it weren't for the decapitation fifteen minutes in, it would feel like the set-up for an early seventies romance flick, as it is merely montages of two couples bickering and visiting attractions. It wavers in a trance between events with a handful of style choices in repeat until an abrupt dismemberment ends the plot thread and picks up another. About halfway through, just before the almost overdue second kill leads to disembowelment, it reminds itself that there is a mysterious killer and forms a casual game of whodunnit. Any guessing is short-lived, however, and the mood shifts drastically to present the killer's pathos with a wonderful, disturbing thud. Schlocky, undeveloped, and broken, the compost clump of American culture is inexplicably entertaining. The mean spirited butchery breaks apart the long, dragged out, dreamlike moments without finesse or build-up (besides spooky chuckles coming from nowhere).  Every murder feels sudden, and clashes with the already confused mood, making the cartoon extremes more effective. Inadvertently, it creates a surreal, jagged flow from unexplained visuals and half baked conversation with sudden spikes of fucked up violence. 
Making a poster child for 70s horror cheese, Carnival of Blood's production values are a well-balanced medium between era-appropriate porn and a personal hygiene video featuring a cigarette smoking doctor. Filmed in 16mm, the picture is dingy, yellow, and riddled with blemishes. The primary setting/location is well utilized and fully embraced, although I don't know if Coney Island truly counts as a carnival. Most likely by accident, the movie scoops up a handful of its era and sells its "carnival" atmosphere more than anything. When showcasing the festivities, it plays like a flashback reel pieced together from a drunken father's (vintage) vacation footage. This mostly cheerful filler would feel just as much at home in a documentary examining Coney Island in the early 70s and brings some authentic, candid vibes. The montages usually have nothing to do with the main characters and feature background attendees who may not even know there was a film being made. With the rest of the movie, the production seems content just making sure everyone is in-frame, but little else. Whoever they had holding the camera, wiggles around like they always have to go pee. Auxiliary locations are skimpy, and everyone looks like they live in a retirement home for some reason. Taking an obvious cue from Herschell Gordon Lewis, the film halts on some of the few mutilations, while the killer plays with their remains in grotesque ways for extended periods. The first victim's decapitation is probably the least enthusiastic of the gore effects, but it makes up for this by having the boyfriend regurgitate a hot dog afterword. None of the carnage looks incredibly real, but it's good old-fashioned, over the top fun. All sounds overlap with no master leveling, making it hard to discern which of the several lines of chatter is essential. Unattached sound effects come out of nowhere like an arthouse film and get lost in the cacophony of bitter complaining. I'm under the impression the crazy laughter that washed everything out when someone was about to get sliced was coming from the tunnel of death, but I could be wrong since it starts up when they are nowhere near it and hangs into the next scene ungracefully. Only appearing to make things weirder, the music is a meditative mix of upbeat 70s folk with a little bit of relaxing jazz. It makes absolutely no sense with anything else that's happening, adding a strange contrast to the bizarre experience. I assume they just forgot movies needed music and grabbed the first cheap rights laying around in 1970. It is one of my favorite parts and really holds the hot, confused mess together like the crust on a deep fried twinkie. 
Carnival of Blood (not to be confused with Malatesta's Carnival of Blood released in 1973) features Burt Young (Paulie from Rocky 1976, Chinatown 1974)  in his debut performance as Gimpy, the child-minded carnie with some kind of skin disease. Some would say his performance was hamfisted (and probably ill-advised career-wise), but I would argue that he is the only one in the production that knew it was a comedy. One of the most memorable performances comes from Glen Kimberley, who is supposed to be a drunken sailor but instead makes his best impression of a stoned head-trauma survivor. The film is written and directed by Leonard Kirtman, most known for his long-running adult film studio,  Kirt Films. It would be one of few non-erotic movies released by Kirtman who left the business sometime in the 80s. If I had to guess, the career diversion was part of an effort to grab some of that sweet horror, drive-in dough. The project was completed in 1970 but mostly stayed shelved until a theatre run in 1976 following Burt Young's appearance in the mainstream hit Rocky.
Reminiscent of a walk to the bathroom after a handle of cheap vodka, two funnel cakes and a ride on the Gravitron, Carnival of Blood is a dizzying, directionless stumble towards a violent mess. It's mostly fun to watch for its failures, but it is also a memorable disaster of a proto-slasher that went along its own path entirely. There isn't much of a compelling plot; however, there is folk music, toxic relationships, carnies, and campy gore. It is undeniably "bad" by reasonable terms, but so fucking bad it could almost be confused for a piece of misunderstood art, although, I wouldn't waste too many brain cells on it. Overall it’s insane, mean spirited trash with a dirty carousel, and I dig it.  Also, next time I get the chance, I'm checking out an actual carnival to take it all in. There has to be one out there with some mystery to it, or at least a more relaxed policy regarding my level of intoxication. 
1h 27min | 1973
 Director: Leonard Kirtman
Writer: Leonard Kirtman

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