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Blu-ray Review: Carnival Magic

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During the drug-fueled ‘60s and ‘70s, an independent (and admittedly cheap) filmmaker named Al Adamson directed a number of truly awful movies. The critics hated his films and their creator as well. There’s a pretty good chance many a great deal of moviegoers also grew to detest his name. But Al really didn’t give a rat’s ass because he made movies to make movies: he was just getting paid for doing something he loved — which is a feat few can attest to, really.

Now, as a bad movie lover, I happen to have a fondness for some of Al’s works. There’s just something about crap-tastic features like Al’s horrible horror vehicle Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (1971) or the cut-and-paste science fiction monstrosity that was Horror Of The Blood Monsters that appeal to me (hell, I even have the original movie posters for both features!). Perhaps it was Al’s seemingly-intrinsic ability to manufacture a horror film without including any horror, or his skill at patching together a science fiction fable that had nary a trace of science fiction in it that draws me to the aforementioned moving pictures.

Somewhere during the ‘90s, many of Adamson’s films began to achieve their rightful place in Cult Movie History. One film, however, eluded Adamson’s growing league of admirers: the 1981 family-friendly kiddie flick Carnival Magic. But now, thanks to an accidental discovery of an original negative of the film (along with merchandising memorabilia galore) in a warehouse in 2009, Carnival Magic can worm its way into your homes and hearts — and completely scare this shit out of you in the process.

Why? Well, seeing as how he could make horror and sci-fi movies without horror and sci-fi elements, it stands to reason that only Al Adamson could make a kiddie flick and completely neglect to include the vital “kiddie” part!

Our story centers on a carnival magician, one Markov the Magnificent (Don Stewart): a very private man employed at a failing show who keeps his surprisingly spacious trailer secure from prying eyes so that know one will find out that he has a creepy, talking, and highly intelligent chimpanzee named Alex lurking inside! Well, when Markov’s boss finds out about the talking “minkey,” he (naturally) urges the nearly destitute magician to create a new act — wherein Markov the Magnificent and Alexander the Great can entertaining the never-ending hoards of Southern local yokels to raise enough money to save the show. Naturally, things get a little (heh) hairy when a rival showcase act (the lion tamer person guy) grows extremely envious of Markov’s act and his spine-chilling “pet,” and tries to sell the critter to a government scientist with a dubbed voice.

Yes, folks, that’s the plot in a nutshell. Unfortunately, it takes forever and a day to get to that last part. In the meantime, we get to suffer from fruity philosophical conversations between Don Stewart and his fellow television-actor (or non-actor, as the case usually is) co-stars; numerous sideshow magic acts that defy the will the live; and several “hilarious hijinks” featuring that crazy chimp, Alex. Were it not for the talking chimp part, the movie would probably come across as a special two-hour episode of B.J. And The Bear. As it stands though, the post-synch looping of Alex’s low, raspy, almost-child-molester-like voice (which is credited to a female!) makes Carnival Magic a “kiddie” flick of another color altogether.

Dramatically, however, Carnival Magic is probably Al Adamson’s most “believable” film (if you can say such a thing). The second-to-last directorial feature from the late filmmaker (who retired from the movie industry in ‘83 and was later murdered in ‘95 by his live-in contractor — just as the now-cult icon was on the verge of a comeback) almost has a bit of heart to it at times, especially as you near the tear-jerking finale of the film — which is strangely reminiscent of the following year’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial.

But, no matter how dramatic and touching the end of Carnival Magic may get (or try to get), there’s no denying that this is still an Al Adamson film. One only need look for Adamson’s then-wife Regina Carrol or the many filmmaking faults the film is littered with. But, of course, that’s what makes the movie special!

It may be hard for non-Adamson followers to process why, but nevertheless, Carnival Magic has finally made its way to home video in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack via the CULTRA/HD Cinema Classics label (distributed by Film Chest and Virgil Films & Entertainment). Purists will probably give the A/V aspects of the HD portion of this release a raised eyebrow or two — but then, this was a very low budget, so you can‘t expect too much from it! While the colors are pretty muted for the most part and a lot of the picture looks rather soft, the contrast comes through reasonably well and the level of detail is surprising at times (not to mention unnerving, especially when all you see are circus folk!). All in all, Carnival Magic is a bit of a mixed-bag in this 1080p transfer — but I can’t imagine any of us thought we’d see an Al Adamson flick on Blu-ray to begin with, so I’m not complaining.

Audio-wise, Carnival Magic boasts an English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The movie’s dialogue and atrociously disturbing generic carnival music score emerge just fine, but the mix is pretty front-heavy. As a matter of fact, I really don’t recall hearing anything emerging from the rear speakers at all. Mind you, we were in a trance from the drug-like state that the movie induces upon its viewers, so take that as you will. The movie also comes with an English 2.0 Stereo soundtrack. Optional Spanish subtitles are included, just so poor little Miguel and Alicia can take part in the madness, too (although Carnival Magic isn’t too far removed from some of the oddities that Telemundo airs in terms of weirdness).

Special Features? Well, while putting a strange movie with a history like Carnival Magic out on video without any exclusive bonus materials generally wouldn’t be an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, the good men and women that put this release together at least had the common sense to give the Adamson fans a few goodies (which are included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD). First off is an interview with producer Elvin Feltner, who roams around with cult film historian Joe Rubin and colleague and often-candidly discusses the story behind the feature. Also included is a still gallery of press materials, twenty minutes of silent outtakes, a theatrical trailer and TV spot for the film, and finally, a demo comparing how the movie looked before and after being restored for its home video release.

And so, to sum it all up: Carnival Magic is bad. It’s creepy, cheap, cheesy, and features a ton of bad acting, editing and music to boot. Naturally, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy immediately and torment your family (or yourself) with it. I sure as hell did!

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.