Carny (2009)

APRIL 2, 2010


I was interested in seeing Carny, because I think director Sheldon Wilson is a real talent after turning out two decent movies that should have been complete junk (Kaw and Screamers: The Hunting) as well as one really good one (Shallow Ground, which is the only one that he wrote as well, for the record). I was even more encouraged when my friend Kolleen said it sucked, because her taste in movies is not often in line with mine. Well, it doesn’t completely suck, but it’s definitely a missed opportunity.

I assume the budget is the main culprit, as there are a lot of good ideas here, but the film dilly dallies for a long time on lesser elements, only to rush through a climax that has more going on than should have been necessary. I think a good monster movie has to have protagonists (or other antagonists) that are all after something different. Take Jaws - Scheider wants to protect his town, Dreyfuss wants to sate his desire for knowledge/discovery, and Shaw, well, Shaw just wants his money (and, OK, get some sort of revenge on the sharks that ate his buddies after the Indianapolis went down).

Well, in Carny, we have Lou Diamond Phillips in the Scheider role, but the other two main characters have different motives. The pastor wants to wipe out the “Devil” (It’s the Jersey Devil, not an evil Carny, as I had originally thought/kind of hoped for), believing it to be the actual Satan and preaching to the townsfolk to join him in ridding the town of the “evil” carnival (i.e. not just the monster, but the entire carnival - rides, tents, workers). And then there’s the dipshit that runs the carnival, who has no concern for human life and only wants to protect his investment (it’s a would-be carnival attraction, chained up sort of like King Kong but without the sympathy for the monster). All of these things are introduced early on, but the Pastor and his posse sort of take a backseat for the bulk of the movie, where it should have been a bigger driving force in the narrative (since it’s the least generic). If I was writing this movie, I’d have the townsfolk vs carnie folk (who are also under-utilized) be the main thrust of the movie, with Phillips trying not only to keep them from killing each other, but stop the monster as well, and maybe team up with a few of the freaks for good measure. Early on, Phillips encounters a guy with a head that’s sort of split in two, and he’s freaked out by the guy, which obviously makes the poor freak upset (not in a dickish way). I would have liked to have seen Phillips sort of redeem himself for his faux pas, maybe even help the guy out, defend him from a crazed townsperson or something.

Instead, we spend what seems like a third of the movie in the woods, as Phillips and his deputy, plus the carnival owner and his main lackey, hunt for the thing in the forest. Now, to give the movie some credit, it’s a Canadian forest, and not the usual Bulgarian one we see in these things, so it looks unique, but it’s still yet another Sci-Fi Channel movie with a few guys in the woods looking for a monster for a long time. The carnival only plays prominently in the climax, which is also a bummer - I would have liked to have seen more of the film (or all of it) set there. The monster seems to only care about killing the folks that pissed it off, and whoever gets in its way, so they could have kept it all confined to the carnival (possibly all in one night) and had a more visually interesting movie AND a better setting to boot.

Also, there are a couple of scenes where Phillips is investigating how some of the victims died. We know how they died (the carnival owner used them as bait), so these sort of scenes just carry no weight. And, strange for this kind of movie, there’s never any mystery to it - Phillips sees the monster in the first 20 minutes, and watches it escape. Usually there’d be like “Hey Sheriff, so and so is dead!” and he’d be all “What could have CAUSED this?” and then see the monster in the 2nd act or something (you know, like Jaws). It’s like the movie has all of the right pieces, but they’re in the wrong order.

But it’s still watchable and entertaining, which is more than I can say about most “Syfy” premieres (though I don’t think this was produced specifically for the channel - it didn’t say Sci-Fi presents or whatever at the beginning). Phillips may be looking older, but he still has the stoic but easygoing charm he’s always had (he fares far better here than in Bats, I’ll say that much). And it’s got some personality touches here and there, such as the deputy working on a model while he takes calls (and then, of course, after he dies, Lou looks forlornly at the thing). Plus, the ending surprised me - not that it was a “twist” or anything, but it did not have the ending that I would expect to see in what is more or less a generic monster movie.

The FX are pretty decent too (though as I was watching on Netflix instant, the lo-res image might have been hiding poor compositing). Wilson uses the monster sparingly, and while it’s CG most (all?) of the time, it’s effectively “in” the scenes, knocking over tables and smacking lights and such. And since it’s not that big to begin with, it’s not susceptible to the usual scale issues that plague these things (where the giant alligator or whatever will be 20 feet long in one shot and seemingly 50 in the next). The freak makeup is also terrific, as is a pretty harsh evisceration near the film’s end. I also liked how splatter-y it got when Lou finally punched the asshole carny in the face - what seems like a half gallon of blood splashes on the wall next to him. It’s sort of ridiculous, but awesome all the same.

Ultimately, it could have been a really good movie had the script utilized its ideas in a more cohesive, tension building way, but for this sort of thing, that it HAD ideas in the first place is more than enough to give it a passing grade. I just hope Wilson’s upcoming Mothman film shows more of the promise he has shown in his previous films.

What say you?

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  1. Ok, I might have to make a movie about an evil carny if I ever get access to a set like that.

  2. Great review. This film was surprisingly watchable and like you said Director Sheldon seems to have the gift of turning lemons into lemonade. (Which to me says he has that love for the genre like we do!) Another funny thing is that over the past several years I've grown to like watching Lou Diamond Phillips in these paycheck movies. He manages to turn in a performance when he could have sleep walked his way through the roles and even has a good sense of humor about it all.

    Anyway, one of the better SyFy films.


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