Monday, May 27, 2019

“An Hysterical Woman on My Back" - Carnival of Blood (1970)

Not to be confused with Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (1973) or Carnival of Souls (1962) or Carnival of Souls (1998) or Carnival of Crime (1962) or Blood Circus (1981) or Circus of Horrors (1960), Carnival of Blood (1970) is a chilling and violent mystery featuring the big screen debut of Oscar nominee Burt Young.

Several critics from your universe confuse the film's raw power with something else. For example, reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "Sluggish pacing and terrible acting from all involved make the film a real challenge to sit through, but Carnival of Blood's biggest problem is its repetitiveness." Reviewer TheLittleSongbird writes, "The movie is very clumsily edited with lighting that does nothing to enhance the mood and very amateurish-looking effects." And reviewer preppy-3 writes, "The dialogue is terrible and the acting is even worse."

Please read on for a discussion of the complexities of taxi driver and adult film impresario Leonard Kirtman's Carnival of Blood...

Appropriately, the film begins with shots of a carnival, in this case Coney Island. A man and woman argue about going home: The woman wants to go on another ride while the man wants to get on the subway and go home. The argument is unresolved.

The next morning, we follow another couple in New York City who are sitting on a filthy porch. The man has been promoted to Assistant District Attorney, which prompts him to propose to the woman. Then they put on a pot of coffee and make love.

The film cuts back to the nighttime scene of the couple at the carnival, where they are enticed into a fortune teller’s shack. The fortune teller says the woman will live 87 years and then she does a tarot reading. After some nonsense about a business involving zippers, the fortune teller sees something sinister in the cards, so she kicks the couple outside without telling them the problem.

After an extended, mildly successful attempt to win a teddy bear by throwing darts at balloons, the man agrees to go on one ride with his wife. They choose the haunted house, which features a few animatronic corpses. The wife screams.

When their car exits the dark ride, the husband and various onlookers are shocked to see the wife’s head fall off.

An ambulance and policemen arrive immediately and collect the body. One of the ambulance attendants says, “She was a good lookin’ chick, too.”

Later, we return to the story of Dan the new Assistant DA and his fiancé Laura, a painter whose apartment features a massive net with sea creatures above the bed. Dan calls Laura to tell her about the murder at the carnival, to which he might be assigned. (It will be his big break.)

Of course, Dan wants to go to the amusement park where the murder took place so he can get a leg up on the case, to ensure he will be assigned to it. Laura is frustrated. Referring to their engagement, she says, “I don’t want to spend my special night snooping after a murderer.”

Coincidentally, Laura’s neighbor Tom works at the carnival (or the “amusement area,” as Laura continually calls it) as a booth attendant at the balloon-popping game. He convinces Laura to go to the carnival with Dan, though Laura still has doubts about her safety, even though Tom says the murderer is probably a hundred miles away. Laura replies, “He could be somebody who works there. Who knows?”

“Forget about it,” Tom replies, convincingly.

After Tom leaves, Dan returns to the apartment, makes love to Laura, and then they go to Coney Island. There follows a classic montage of carnival shenanigans, including an extended scene of Dan and Laura exchanging silly hats, set to low-key folk music.

During a comical sequence at Tom’s balloon game booth, as a drunken, middle-aged sailor attempts to throw darts, the filmmakers introduce Burt Young’s hunchback character Gimpy, who works for some reason as Tom’s assistant at the booth.

Laura and Dan find Tom at his booth, where Laura introduces Dan to Mr. Young. “Dan, this is my friend Gimpy. Gimpy just started here and he’s doing really well.”

After Dan wins a stuffed animal for Laura, Dan says they should go to the fortune teller next. Oddly, Laura says, “Down to business, huh?”

The fortune teller gives them a reading. “I see an advantageous marriage. But the person is not clear. You must be careful. There is someone out to do you harm.” She cuts the reading short, mysteriously.

Following the murdered woman’s footsteps, Laura and Dan go on the haunted house ride. “This where she got killed last night,” Laura says.

“I know that, that’s why I want to go in there,” Dan replies, reminding us of his crystal clear plan to investigate last night’s murder so he is assigned the case as Assistant DA. Though the ride traumatizes Laura, both of them survive.

Meanwhile, the drunken, middle-aged sailor and his girlfriend stumble through the carnival, losing more carnival games. They arrive at the fortune teller’s booth, but the sailor is too drunk even to sit in a chair. His girlfriend says, “Are you gonna sit up or are you gonna fall down again like a donkey?” During the reading, the girlfriend steals the sailor’s money. Afterward, at sunrise, the sailor drags her under the boardwalk, but she tries to get away. She loses her teddy bear in the surf and entreats him to retrieve it. “You’re the sailor,” she tells him.

In a scene that heavily features the appearance of a microphone at the top of the frame, the sailor forces himself on the woman. Then he stumbles away, leaving her in the sand. A shadowy assailant knifes her in the stomach and she dies.

Grotesquely, the killer reaches into her stomach wound and starts pulling out her intestines.

On the boardwalk, Dan discovers Laura left her teddy bear in the haunted house, so he returns to find it, leaving Laura alone on the boardwalk. When he returns, she insists (reversing her previous position) on investigating the murdered woman’s screams, and the two discover her mutilated body under the boardwalk.

Back at Tom’s booth, Gimpy returns suspiciously after an absence, holding a teddy bear. When Tom asks where he was, Gimpy gets upset, tearing up the teddy bear, so Tom tries to calm him down. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s close up the store and we’ll go to my place, okay? We’ll have a beer.”

Tom and Gimpy walk hand-in-hand into the city.

They reach Tom’s apartment and we see his impressive stuffed animal collection. “It’s nice here, Tom,” Gimpy says.

Referring to the teddy bears, Tom says, not at all suspiciously, “Some of them are like old friends.”

Mr. Young tells Tom he has no mother, but he had a dog, though he had to kill the dog. He gives no further details. Mr. Young then asks Tom if he has a girlfriend, and Tom says no, giggling like a schoolgirl. He tells Mr. Young, again not at all suspiciously, that the stuffed animals are his special friends. Then Tom invites Mr. Young to spend the night in his apartment.

“Tom, I’m dirty and not too clean.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. There’s plenty of room.”

The filmmakers dissolve back to Coney Island, where the fortune teller is trying to get the business of a woman wearing fascinating sunglasses, while the boom microphone does a great job from the bottom of the screen picking up the crisp dialogue.

The fortune teller tells the woman that she will be going on a boat trip within the next two days where she will meet a man with the first initial R who has a ring and paper money. Then, as with most of her readings, the fortune teller says she cannot read any more and exhorts the woman to go home quickly. Instead of going home, she goes to Tom’s dart booth and wins, despite antagonism between her and Burt Young.

Shockingly, the woman does not visit the haunted house. Instead, she walks down an alley, where she is awkwardly assaulted by someone who shoves his fingers into her mouth, knocks her down, and then gouges out her eyes.

The film returns to Laura and Dan, as Dan scares Laura by wearing a gorilla mask. “I’ve never seen you afraid all day,” Dan says eloquently. Then he tells her he is taking her back to Coney Island tonight, which makes her angry. “The only way you can stop being scared is by going back there.”

“That isn’t true at all,” she says sensibly.

“It’s important you go out there tonight. I can’t afford to have an hysterical woman on my back the rest of my life.”

He runs away and she tosses her engagement ring on the floor. Then she starts brushing black paint all over the teddy bear he won for her.

Dan returns to Coney Island alone and confronts the fortune teller; somehow, he knows that all three murdered women visited her and that she warned them to go home. She tells him it was something in the cards that told her. And she goes into a trance, muttering, “Yellow hair, burns, knife, neck. Dan!”

Not far away, Laura for no apparent reason has walked to Coney Island to visit Tom and tell him how upset she is that Dan wanted her to come to Coney Island. She tells Tom she painted over the bear, and he is shocked; predictably, he is more concerned about the bear than anything else. “Selfish!” he screams. “Destructive! Slut!”

Tom tries to leave the booth and Mr. Young tries to stop him, so Tom stabs him in the stomach. “Oh, Gimpy, why’d you have to get in my way?” he asks as Mr. Young falls over, dead.

Thus, balding, middle-aged teddy bear enthusiast Tom is revealed to be the slasher.

For no apparent reason, Dan decides to investigate Tom’s apartment. When he enters, he finds perhaps the film’s most accomplished and shocking image: a giant teddy bear filled with the guts of Tom’s victims.

Tom finds Laura in the carnival and convinces her to go on the sky ride with him, leading to an alarming scene in which he attempts to open the door of the sky ride car high above Coney Island. He is unsuccessful, but when they return to the ground, he convinces her to go on the Wonder Wheel. When their car stops, he tells her, “I’m going to kill you, Laura.”

Her calls her selfish like an animal, then tries to strangle her. “I have to kill you, Mommy. I have to.”

Laura tries to bluff. “Mommy loves Tom. No. Mommy loves Tom.”

Tom flashes back to a night when his father gave him a teddy bear, but his mother took it away from him. Thus, his psychosis, like those of so many other people, is a result of his mother not letting him sleep with a stuffed animal. That, and hearing his mother having sex with another man and his father killing her and burning down the house, though these last incidents appear to be secondary causes.

In the finale, the Ferris wheel stops and Tom runs away, but a car hits him.

The film then presents its final twist, as it is now apparent that Tom was wearing a mask. Dan pulls it off, revealing that Tom’s face was horribly burned.

Tom falls limp. Laura asks, “Is he dead? Is there a doctor here?”

Neither question is given a response, and the film fades to its final credits and a reprise of the opening folk song.

For a film whose central question is whether an engaged art teacher will go to the carnival with her fiance or not, Carnival of Blood generates an unexpected amount of mystery about the identity of its murderer. It also generates more than its share of sleazy unpleasantness, particularly in its second half, what with the face peeling and impromptu eyeball extraction and especially the gut-filled giant teddy bear. It is quite a surprise that Leonard Kirtman's first director's job was his only horror film, unique among a prolific output of adult films. A follow-up would have been fascinating indeed.

One of the biggest surprises in Carnival of Blood is the quality of the acting. Earle Edgerton as Tom gives what appears to be a classical performance as the friendly Tom, who is revealed at the end to be a pathetic and almost sympathetic killer. Mr. Edgerton has only three credits on IMDB, and Carnival of Blood is surprisingly the first (the others are Andy Milligan's Fleshpot on 42nd Street in 1973 and The Filthiest Show in Town, also in 1973, a credit he shares with Gloria Spivak, the actor who played the woman who loses her eyeballs). And of course this film features the big-screen debut of Burt Young (credited here as John Harris), the Oscar-nominated method actor whose heartwarming character Gimpy is first introduced as a potential murder suspect and is then revealed to be a simple-minded innocent. Mr. Young's performance could not be more different from Mr. Edgerton's, but the two have a great deal of chemistry, and the scene in which Tom invites Gimpy to his stuffed animal-filled apartment is close to a masterpiece of tension, as the audience doesn't know if Tom is being nice or if he is attempting to seduce the simple-minded hunchback. Along with the teddy bear spilling its guts, this simple scene is a high point of Carnival of Blood, an unacknowledged masterpiece of low-budget horror.