Friday, March 2, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Carny (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

And because I am a mad genius, I this is also part of Accidental TV Movie Week.

The very peaceful working life of small-town Sheriff Atlas (Lou Diamond Phillips) and his lone deputy becomes quite a bit more straining when the carnival comes to town. High-strung and melodramatic local pastor Owen (Vlasta Vrana) must have studied theology during the Dark Ages. Therefore, he is sure the outward deformity of people is proof of their inner sinfulness. Ergo, the arrival of a carnival equals the devil making the town his new vacation home.

Alas, in this particular case, the pastor isn't completely wrong. The carnival's boss, Cap (Alan C. Peterson), at least, is the kind of guy who doesn't even stop at murder to get what he wants, and uses a spiel about the outsiders of the world having to stick together to keep his people in line. This week's murder has brought Cap a nice little winged monster he plans on selling on, but surely, there's no problem with exhibiting it before that happens? It's not as if Cap's measures to keep the monster in its cage were half-assed at best, and the thing really not a fan of audience participation, right?

So, obviously, the monster escapes, and it's now the Sheriff's job to kill it before it eats everyone in town. This job is not made easier by the crazy pastor who will find reasons to become even crazier in time, nor by Cap's own, ruthless, attempts at catching his monster again. On the plus side, the affair does give the Sheriff opportunity for researching what monster of urban legend he is confronted with (I see no need to spoil it, unlike everyone else on the 'net) together with the carnival's authentic fortune teller Samara (Simone-Élise Girard).

Sheldon Wilson's Carny, ladies and gentlemen, might very well be the perfect SyFy/Sci Fi/Sci-Fi Channel movie, at least of the serious "monster munches through small town" variant. At the very least, it's among the best examples of the species I've yet encountered - I'm not sure I'd survive the joy if found one I enjoyed even more than this one.

Carny's just pretty much perfect as a clever little low budget monster movie in every respect. Wilson, working from a rather tight script written by Douglas G. Davis, is a deft hand at using visual short-hand and small bits of dialogue to do expository work, establishing character habits and expecting the audience to get them without feeling the need to point everything about its cast of small town characters out with grand gestures. Quite a few films of this type make their generally not very original characters less believable by having them talk everything out; Carny often just shows something. That doesn't sound like much, but it demonstrates a basic trust in Wilson's own abilities as visual storyteller, as well as in the audience not being too stupid to understand the basics of a monster movie without having them pointed out.

This approach leaves space for some advanced narrative elements, like actual subtext - if ever there was a SyFy Channel movie seriously sceptical of the kind of working class small town values these films generally espouse without demonizing every working class small town denizen, this surely is it - and the clever little touches that turn a competent little monster movie into something special. Just watch the Sheriff's first walk around the carnival, and try not to be impressed by how the film establishes Atlas as a good guy, not someone completely without prejudices but trying to work on that and the carnival people as protective of each other, because they are used to be treated with prejudices, without making everything too demonstrative.

I very much appreciate how messy the script is willing to keep everything, with the pastor and Cap both crazy men keeping their respective communities in line through fear - in the pastor's case, the fear of god and everyone who is different, in Cap's case the fear of (and often painful experience of) being mistreated for being different. Everyone in the movie is flawed, even our Sheriff hero, the difference just seems to be that some people are able to see their own flaws and try to work through them while others very much prefer a scapegoat. Carny is even willing to follow this line of thought into rather dark places for a SyFy movie, without laying it on too thick.

Whatever flaws the script has - let's be honest here, even carrying some thematic depth, the characters are still far from original and certainly rather on the broadly drawn side, and US small town horror is a sub-genre rather too common on screen and in print - the actors very much make up for. It's no surprise to anyone that much-loathed - but if you ask me just unlucky in his career - Lou Diamond Phillips was pretty much born to play this kind of laid-back, quietly competent small town sheriff. I am in fact quite sure that a mysterious fortune teller foresaw his fate as an actor when he was still a baby, and convinced his mother to proceed accordingly with his education, making him even more perfect for this kind of job.

However, the rest of the cast - probably not honed from birth for their parts - is equally wonderful for their roles, with Alan C. Peterson rendering his sleazy and absolutely ruthless carnival owner convincingly without resorting to too much scenery chewing. That part of the job is left to Vlasta Vrana, whose frequent outbreaks of melodramatics and loud preaching of nonsense should be ridiculous but really rather fit Carny's mood of macabre threat with a side dish of the quotidian turning a little bit mad.

Talking of said threat, the monster here is one of the better SyFy CGI (with a bit of practical effects magic in the appropriate places) creatures I've seen, with a simple yet cool design, showing little of the apparent sloppiness often characterizing this aspect of the Channel's movies. Even though it's pretty great, Wilson does put a lot of effort into not showing too much of his monster without resorting to overly fast editing, for once actually providing a SyFy monster with a feeling of menace.

Carny is also just very good at being an old-style creature feature, with just as much small, clever moments connected to the monster attacks as there are to the film's thematic interests. The finale is particularly cool, even turning towards a somewhat (small town) apocalyptic mood with excellent effect. The film's just lovely all around.

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