Lost classics. Forgotten gems. These are the films that, for some reason or another, fell off the radar completely. Some for years; some even for decades! Little-seen films, indie offerings, and cult-classics that were lucky to have gotten a blink-and-you'll-miss-it theatrical release, let alone a second (or third, or fourth) life on VHS or DVD. These are films that, for whatever reason, barely made a blip on cinema’s radar, but beg – nay, deserve to be seen!
And then there’s Carnival Magic.
After a short theatrical run in 1983 (the film was actually made in 1981), all copies of Carnival Magic vanished, and, for nearly three decades, was thought lost until a 35mm print of “magically” resurfaced in 2009. Meant as a “kid’s movie”, Carnival Magic is everything but, however, when viewed in that context, this is precisely what makes this bizarre find so deliriously entertaining.
Markov the Magician (soap opera star, Don Stewart) is an illusionist (as well as a genuine telepath that can bend steel, move stuff, and read people’s minds), at a struggling carnival who suddenly finds his job in jeopardy when the carnival’s owner, Stoney (Mark Weston) decides he must cut one of his big acts to save money. The surly lion tamer, Kirk (Joe Cirillo) goads Stoney into firing his biggest competition in Markov. Markov, however, has a secret weapon (as if being a genuine magician isn’t enough) and that’s his talking chimpanzee, Alex (who sounds like a cross between Harry Connick Jr. and Wolfman Jack). While he’s loathe to share his exceptionally intelligent ape with the rest of the world, Stoney’s daughter, Ellen (Jennifer Houlton), convinces Markov that Alex is the only thing that can save his job, as well as her dad’s business.
As expected, Alex becomes a huge hit, and the carnival starts raking in cash. However, the jealous Kirk, unhappy playing second fiddle to a talking ape, kidnaps Alex and delivers the beastie to a seedy anthropologist who aims to carve up Markov’s miracle monkey in order to see what makes him tick. Along the way we are treated to heavy boozin’, bouncing bosoms, a suicide attempt, a tiger mauling, a woman getting the crap kicked out of her, and animal abuse. Yep, all the ingredients of your typical family film, right there.
Were I to have seen Carnival Magic upon its release back in the early eighties, I’d probably be typing this from a jail cell as this is the sort of film that can truly scar a young mind. Shot on a meager budget in North Carolina, the film’s aesthete is something of a cross between an early 1970’s television movie and grindhouse porno. It’s about as visually unappealing a film as I’ve ever seen, made worse by legendary exploitation filmmaker, Al Adamson’s, pedestrian direction. The actors are as stiff as cadavers, seemingly waiting for some semblance of instruction from Adamson, who’s camera just lingers on them in for what seems like an eternity. Even the filler scenes, like the endless montages of extras wandering around the carnival grounds or riding the rides, run on for far too long, slowing what’s already a sluggish film to a crawl. It’s hilariously incompetent stuff, and so thoroughly misguided in its attempts at emulating family fare that it’s no wonder it’s become the stuff of bad movie legend. Carnival Magic got more laughs out of me than most intentionally funny films do, and I was as sober as a judge when I watched it. I can only imagine what it would be like seeing this mad film with a roomful of intoxicated friends.
Carnival Magic makes its home video debut on Blu-ray, of all formats, courtesy of Synergy Enterainment’s Cultra imprint. For a low-budget, forgotten flick, the 1.78:1 transfer is pretty damned good, with very little evidence of print damage. The image is a bit drab, but I think that has more to do with the source material than the authoring, with washed out colors and some grayish blacks in the darker scenes. It’s certainly not reference material stuff, but, for what easily amounts to one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, the treatment’s more than sufficient.
Cultra didn’t bother with an HD audio track for this one, and I can’t say I blame them. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is a tinny, distorted mess at times, but, for the most part, does the job. There’s hardly an bass to speak of, but the attempts at forced surround are mildly effective if not entirely inconsequential. Also included is the film’s original stereo track.
Extras include a borderline delusional commentary track featuring cult film guru, Joe Rubin, and the film’s producer, Elvis Feltner. The way the two men talk about the film you’d think they’d uncovered a lost Fellini film. I’m not sure if Rubin’s just taking the piss here, but Feltner seems genuinely impressed by what they’re watching. It’s all very informative, but seemingly just as misguided as the film itself.
Other special features include a short interview with Feltner, who dishes out more dirt on the production whilst eating lunch with Rubin; a selection of outtakes (ironic since the entire film plays like one) sans audio; a slide-show of photos and ephemera specific to the film, and a short look at the restoration process.
Also included is a DVD copy of the film so, when you take it to your friend’s houses and they claim not to have a Blu-ray player, you can whip out the DVD and cackle like a mad gypsy.
Move over Ed Wood; Al Adamson’s Carnival Magic is a film that gives Plan 9 From Outer Space a run for its money in terms of sheer awfulness. This should be required viewing in film schools around the world, serving as an example of how not to make a movie, least of all one meant for children. As bad as the film is, however, I’m thrilled to have it in my collection, as it’s one I’ll be sure to revisit every time one of my friends comes over and complains about the bad movies I always force upon them. I’m confident that after one viewing of Carnival Magic, they will never complain again!