Clowns. I hate ‘em. There’s just something about a grown man (or woman) in make-up and oversized shoes that gives me the willies, and, judging by the sheer amount of horror films in which clowns serve as the antagonists, I’m not alone. In Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (Balada Triste de Trumpeta), we’re introduced to a very different sort of cinematic clown – more human than monster, and, as a result, that much more terrifying. As a matter of fact, by film’s end, the colorfully coiffed, garishly made-up, and thoroughly disturbed costumed characters in this film could very well replace such comparable lightweights as Pennywise and the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in the regular rotation in your nightmare queue.
Set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, The Last Circus tells the tale of Javier (Carlos Areces), a man born into the clown trade, whose father (and his father before him) dedicated their lives to wigs and greasepaint. The film opens in 1937 at the height of the Spanish Revolution. Javier’s father, a “happy clown”, finds himself recruited by the King’s army to fend off Franco’s rebel force, and, whilst still in costume, takes to the battlefield, hacking his opponents with a machete and a painted-on smile. The clown is captured and jailed, and, over the years during his visits to his father, Javier is told that his destiny is to become a “sad clown” to mirror the miserable life he’s been handed. Javier, however, wants to be a happy clown, like his father, but, in order to do so he must first achieve revenge against those who stole his childhood out from under him. In an attempt at said revenge, Javier attempts to rescue his father but, during the escape, his father dies, thus sealing Javier’s fate.
Fast-forward to the early 1970’s. Javier takes a job with a small circus to serve as the assistant to Sergio (Antonio de la Torre); a brilliant and impassioned clown with a taste for drink and a mean streak a mile wide. His co-workers tolerate Sergio’s abusive and unpredictable nature because he’s a phenomenally talented and much-loved clown, but, on his first night with the circus, Javier witnesses Sergio’s violent outburst against his girlfriend, the comely Natalia (Carolina Bang), and develops an instant disdain for the man as well as an unhealthy relationship with Natalia. As Javier’s love for Natalia grows, so, too, does his hatred for Sergio, culminating in a bloody showdown between the two men that leaves one forever disfigured and the other thoroughly deranged.
The Last Circus is one of the most unique and enjoyable motion picture experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Filmed in an ultra-gritty aesthete, with a surrealist style that is a cross between Fellini and Jeunet (with a healthy dose of Jodorowsky and shades of Hitchcock), de la Iglesia’s film is a smorgasbord of gorgeous visuals, eccentric characters, and jarring violence that all marry together to create a film that is beyond categorization. It’s at once a touching love story, a pitch-black comedy, and an ultra-bloody horror spectacle that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, bolstered by amazing performances by a deliciously low-key Areces and a ferocious de la Torre. A beautiful, challenging, and truly rewarding work, The Last Circus could very well be the best film I’ve seen all year.
Magnolia releases The Last Circus on Blu-ray in a drop-dead gorgeous 2.39:1 transfer that brings this digitally shot film to vivid life on home video. Graded in such a way as to really emphasize brighter hues while desaturating the rest of the color palette, the image here is has an almost tangible sense of depth, with vibrant reds, yellows, and blues popping out from their staid and washed-out surroundings. The level of detail is extraordinary, especially in faces (one can almost count the pores beneath the face paint), the film’s extravagant costumes, and ornate sets. The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtracks (both Spanish and English) offer deep, rich bass and well-implemented surround effects. This film is LOUD, with myriad explosions and gunshots, and the mix is more than up to the task, delivering some earth shaking moments!
Extras include a collection of short featurettes (in standard definition and presented in Spanish with English subtitles) including a brief behind-the-scenes look at the film in The Making of The Last Circus; another collection of BTS footage in the prosaically titled Behind-the-Scenes Segments; a Visual Effects featurette; International Teaser and Trailer, and the U.S. theatrical trailer (in HD), along with trailers for other Magnolia releases.