CIRCUS KANE (15)
Director: Christopher Ray
Review: David Stephens
Circuses and clowns have always been part of the genre since Tod Browning’s “Freaks”. But it’s easy to think that any new clown-based horror is attempting to cash in on the current phenomenal success of “IT”, which is on-track to be the biggest R-rated horror ever in terms of box-office. But to be honest, clowns have always been scary and recent offerings like “Clowntergeist” and “Clownface” – not forgetting the murderous clown-posse of “AHS: Cult” – were being filmed well before people knew that “IT” would have such an impact. This is also true of this recent horror from director Christopher Ray. Ray is the son of legendary low-budget filmmaker Fred Olen Ray, and previously gave us “3-Headed Shark Attack” and “Mega Shark vs. Kolossus”. He has since moved on from mockbuster creature-features, and is now doing low-budget action and original horror movies. “Kane” presents a low-budget variation of circus-themed genre scares. It also answers the question; “What happened to that kid out of Jerry Maguire and Stuart Little?” Well, he’s fighting evil clowns basically. With the film currently available in the US on VOD, and soon on DVD, YGROY takes a look at this carn-evil parade.
In the prologue we get a glimpse of the lyrically talented circus-master Balthazar Kane (a hugely watchable Tim Abell) giving an impromptu magic lesson to a child. We then come up to date, and are introduced to a blood-spattered young woman in a police interview room. (Question: why in modern horror movies, are crime scene attendees never seemingly allowed to wipe haemoglobin off their mush before being interrogated?). Flashing back from there we meet an eclectic bunch of characters that make up the focus of the plot. They include petty criminal Scott (Jonathan Lipnicki, who was the young actor from the aforementioned mainstream classics), along with a memorabilia salesman, a video-gamer, a rocker, etc, etc. They each receive a “golden ticket” – which takes the form of a text message or VHS cassette – from Kane, which promises them a place in a game that could bag them $250k. As each “contestant” represents an aspect of the horror community and have significant social media followings, they assume that it’s a reality show. Especially as Kane is a well-known figure that went underground following an unfortunate incident. But of course it’s much more deadly than “Big Brother” and soon Kane’s grotesque house of circus horror starts to spill blood…
This is a production that knows its horror (and movie) onions. One character (Eddie played by Ted Monte) wears a “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” T-shirt, and constantly spouts a stream of Hollywood impressions and quotes. Lipnicki ironically apes a certain line from “Jerry Maguire”. Hell, there’s even a character dressed as one of the Nazi zombies from the Peter Cushing film “Shock Waves”! It’s indicative of the knowledge and affection of the genre from the script by Zack Ward and James Cullen Bressack. Even Kane acknowledges his role as a “monologuing monster”, and gives a knowing nickname to a character. It also references other clichés, which is typified when one character shows start surprise at actually getting a phone signal in their remote location.
In essence the film can be perceived as a “lite” version of a “Saw” movie or one of Rob Zombie’s freak-show fixated offerings (“31”, “The House of 1,000 Corpses”), albeit on a much lower budget. You can’t help be reminded of Jigsaw’s victims and their journeys, as the ever-whittling group navigate through the mansion in which they’re trapped and the fatal puzzles within. There is an unfortunately timed line from one character, namely; “For a haunted house attraction, this has way more riddles than scares”, which is mostly true to be fair. In all honesty though, it’s closer to something like “Fermat’s Room”, rather than Jigsaw’s deadly traps. A couple of rooms are practically just big skill games from “The Crystal Maze”, and stand out as being less than effective. One particular obstacle is only dangerous if you run straight at it, whilst another is dependent on you having a certain weakness. There’s also a less-than-lethal-looking chainsaw, with the slowest blade in the world… It does redeem itself a number of times though, with some enthusiastic bloody-splashing and some gory make-up effects.
The film does look good, and admittedly has a cool-looking - and properly menacing - killer clown thrown in there (that has nothing to do with Stephen King). However, the biggest plus-point has got to be Abell, a highly skilled wordsmith and a very personable madman. Mostly softly-spoken with a hypnotic quality of showmanship about him, he feels like Jeff Bridge’s “Dude” after being forced through a horror filter. Switching between Shakespearian quotes, and wonderfully flamboyant existential rants (“I don’t expect you lemmings to understand a lion!”), he’s a very watchable boogeyman and one that could easily hold further films.
As watchable and enjoyable as most of it is though, you can’t help but feel a little unsatisfied come the denouement. It is marvellous watching Abell in full flow, but the ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and you even get the impression that there may have been a little last-minute story change going on. The number of puzzles and traps endured by the characters also seems to be held back by the budget, because there are some very clever ideas and notions in there which would have been nice to see more of.
At the end of the day, it’s a smart and knowing riff on genre tropes. And to its very great credit, it never becomes a simple rip-off of the films it emulates like “Saw” and (admittedly and unwittingly) “IT”, despite the promos and images. It’s a decent enough romp, that probably doesn’t quite reach its potential for various reasons. However, there’s always the hypnotic Kane to revel in, and he makes a fine ringmaster for the proceedings…
“Kane” has a hugely watchable performance from Abell and a charismatic villain in the title character. The multiple genre references and gory puzzle-solving is fun, but it doesn’t quite fulfil its inherent promise. The ending is a bit clumsy and some of the sequences drag on a little too long. Nevertheless, it’s still enjoyable enough, and certainly isn’t a clown-ish rip-off of other similar films.