Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973) Blu Ray (Arrow)
A ghoulish carnival
The Norris family - daughter Vena (Janine Carazo), her father (Paul Hostetler) and her mother (Betsy Henn) - start work at a mysterious carnival managed by the rather creepy Blood (Jerome Dempsey). As they encounter the various increasingly strange characters who work there they soon discover that they have ended up in a nightmarish world inhabited by flesh-eating ghouls led by the black-cloaked Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich).
Do they have any hope of escape?
Watch a trailer:
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood was the first and only feature film to have been made by Christopher Speeth and, for that matter, many other people involved in its production. After receiving a 1973 theatrical run in a number of drive-ins throughout the southern United States it disappeared from view, becoming a “lost film” for many years. However, a copy was discovered lying in an attic in the early 2000s and it was given a new lease of life on DVD. More recently, Arrow released a 2K restoration as part of the 2016 three-film box set American Horror Project Vol 1. This December they are releasing each of the three films - including this one - as individual discs.
It’s a hard experience to describe and even harder to assess critically. Firstly, close your eyes and imagine a strange mix of Carnival of Souls, the finale from The Lady From Shanghai, Freaks, Night of the Living Dead and Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Now - imagine a bunch of film and abstract art students got together in a fairground, ingested a ton of hallucinogenics and attempting to make it on a budget of approximately ten dollars.
The acting isn’t too bad considering the fact that much of the cast (with a few exceptions, the most famous being Hervé Villechaize who played the diminutive henchman Nick Nack in The Man With the Golden Gun) had no prior experience in front of a camera. The scenes are often surprisingly well shot and lit, albeit with few moments which suffer from obvious budgetary limitations - an example being the sequences shot on a rollercoaster at night where they clearly couldn’t afford to light it up, thus meaning that we just see the black silhouette of the track against a deep blue sky.
Imaginative but amateurish
In other ways, however, the amateurishness of the production clearly shows through. The violence and bloodshed is ineptly staged; people are “hit” with weapon blows that visibly don’t connect, while a “knife in the eye” effect is achieved by the tip being held between the actor’s fingers as his hand covers his face. The film has also been assembled with little grasp of what makes for a comprehensible narrative. Some horror critics have commented that the film is meant to function as a sort of nightmare, which certainly explains the structure of its later stretches. However, the early establishing moments seem like they were aiming at a sense of relative “normalcy” in setting up the scenario - yet remain incredibly vague in terms of certain plot details.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that a lot of the imagery here is remarkable and imaginative. The expressionistic silhouette cast by Blood across the trailer where the Norris family stay is a classic piece of expressionistic imagery, cleverly prefiguring his nefarious nature. The lengthy sequences where the various characters run through the bowels of the fairground, amongst various colourful bits and pieces, sculptured animals made of papier-mâché and bubble wrap, a hall of mirrors, a rotating obstacle course cylinder and an eerily desolate wood do achieve a palpable feel of surreal terror. The scenes with the ghoulish cannibals present them as a sort of cultish society - led by Malatesta himself - who seem to spend their time singing choral pieces and watching projected silent horror films!
Aficionados of obscure horror will find some interest in Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. Bond buffs might also be curious to see an appearance by Hervé Villechaize the year before he popped up The Man With the Golden Gun, a film which, uncannily enough, also features a couple of bizarre funhouse sequences. Others, however, will probably tire of its endlessly baffling nature and frequently amateurish staging long before the 74-minute runtime is up. While Christopher Speeth never directed another film of this length he has been involved in making a number of experimental shorts over the years. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this, too, should have been a short.
Runtime: 74 mins
Dir: Christopher Speeth
Script: Werner Liepolt
Starring: Janine Carazo, Jerome Dempsey, Daniel Dietrich, Lenny Baker, Hervé Villechaize, William Preston, Paul Hostetler, Betsy Henn, Chris Thomas
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The remastering looks about as good as it could do considering the film’s rough, ultra-low-budget origins. The colours are clear and bright, turning it into an unexpected candy-coloured visual treat.
The Secrets of Malatesta
A wonderful interview with director Christopher Speeth, who talks from the editing room sat beside an old prop drum which was painted by Hervé Villechaize but never used in the final film. He reveals that producer Richard Grosser - who also created the film’s special effects - sourced the warehouse where the interior sets were built via his father, whose work involved helping businesses through bankruptcy.
He also talks about the actors, notably Hervé himself. He recalls a time when he was sent to jail as he stole the negative to another horror film he made at that time after his voice was re-dubbed in post-production without his permission. Sadly, the diminutive actor eventually committed suicide (in 1993) due to suffering from an increasingly painful affliction whereby his organs kept growing even though his body did not.
Speeth himself comes across as a genuinely nice person and it’s sad to hear that he never received any of the profit share he had been promised by film’s distributors following its release.
Writer Werner Liepolt talks about the script, which he based on the legend of Sawney Bean, the leader a Scottish cannibalistic cult of children who lived in caves.
While writing it he actively collaborated with actors Lenny Baker and Hervé Villechaize - both of whom he already knew from performing in his plays - to help define their character traits. He also mentions that the original story in the script was more structured than how it appears in the final film.
An enjoyable discussion by art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson on the film’s production design. The amusement park underground scenes were shot in a warehouse with props composed from such items as fibreglass insulation (which looks like cotton candy), a dead VW Beetle, various pieces of amusement park litter and orange bubble pack from an army surplus store. There is also a stained glass window featured in the film which was built by two sisters who were witches!
A number of scenes of gory cannibalism which were excised in order to secure an MPAA “R” rating are included here.
Audio Commentary with Richard Harland Smith
An enjoyable and engrossing commentary on the film which Richard introduces by telling us not to confuse it with the similarly-titled Carnival of Blood from 1971. He reels off plentiful trivia about the cast (the little girl throwing a tantrum at the start was, in fact, Karen Salmansohn, who in adult life became known for her self-help books) as well as about the real-life filming location: Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania. During this time it was suffering from financial difficulties and was closed for rebranding as a Wild West-themed amusement park called Six Gun Territory. The switch provided the film crew with both a disused location to work on and plenty of dismantled amusements to use as set design.
Richard also comments on the apparent influences on Tobe Hooper’s films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its 1986 sequel and Funhouse. He speculates that he may have caught it in Texas during 1973 while he was making the first of those films.
An image gallery and a brief introduction by Stephen Thrower round out the extras.
While this film may have its small niche of fans, to my mind it is more of an interesting but messy experiment than an unsung classic. However, the extras (especially Richard Harland Smith’s commentary) turn it into something much more entertaining than it would have been as a standalone.