USA / 1973
As I get older, the homegrown horror films of the 70s seem to take firmer root in my heart. They represent a combination of aesthetics that I find endlessly compelling: the ethereal, surreal preoccupations of our European ancestors and the hardscrabble, plucky resourcefulness of our Yankee forefathers. MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD has both qualities in spades. It’s an absurdist play set in one of the country’s most treasured and dubious of entertainments, the regional amusement park. The film was lensed at the Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania, a frugal tactic that goes a long way in establishing the legitimately shabby air that lovingly clings to every frame like a layer of dust. You can practically feel the termites chewing through the rickety wooden roller coasters and smell the sweaty, stagnant water of the dunk tank.
One-time feature director Christopher Speeth wasn’t determined to let his location do all of the heavy lifting though. Enshrouding the carnival’s innards with recycled plastic sheets and foil, Speeth’s team of designers turned their grotty little sideshow into a veritable DIY Hell, complete with a refurbished car fitted with a lolling tongue. The soundtrack to the film–fittingly listed in the end credits as “Psychoacoustics” from the hand of Dr. Sheridan Speeth–is a melange of nightmare recordings and ambient effects, forecasting at times not only the synthetic wave of the coming decade but the moody scores of the 90s and beyond.
For all of this, the film remains 100% snark-proof. While the cast may be decidedly non-professional and the narrative threadbare, every aspect of the production feels perfectly in tune with the spirit of the piece. Nothing jars the viewer here; no unintentional humor can take them out of the experience. From the first turnings of the transvestite fortune-teller’s cards, you are under the movie’s spell, a willing ticket-holder to the sights on offer from the crinkly-caped vampire Mr. Blood and the evil, ever-evasive Malatesta. Like the howling horde of cannibals who worship at the silver screen altar of their greasepaint gods of Universal Studios, I bow my head in homage to Speeth’s incredible McDonaldland of monsters.
P. S. In a twist of fate that can only be described as “weird, bro,” there’s a moment from the film where those crazy cannibals preview a scene from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in their makeshift theater, the exact same CALIGARI scene that turns up in my story “Pause for Laughter” under almost identical circumstances. This October 1st marks not only my initial entry into the October Horror Movie Challenge for this year, but the publication of Nightscript, Vol. II, the very same journal where “Pause…” will be making its debut. If that wasn’t enough to toss your coconuts, the last day of the month, merry ol’ All Hallow’s itself, will see the publication of Joseph S. Pulver’s tribute anthology, The Madness of Dr. Caligari, from Fedogan & Bremer.
There are spooky days ahead of us, my friend. Spooky days.