DVD Review: Carnival Magic
Released By: Cultra
Release Date: January 25, 2012
Number of Discs: 2
Approximate Running Time: 100 Minutes
Special Features: Producer Commentary Track, Trailers, Outtakes
Suggested Price: $19.99
The Source: A small travelling carnival is on the brink of bankruptcy until their resident magician/mentalist adds a talking chimpanzee to his act and revitalizes their attendance. When the alcoholic lion tamer and an egomaniacal scientist kidnap the chimp, the carnie folk are forced to stage a daring recue.
The Fanboy Factor: Al Adamson will always be revered in Fanboy circles as the director of such off the wall classics as Horror of the Blood Monsters, Frankenstein vs. Dracula, and Blood of Ghastly Horror. Towards what would ultimately be the end of his career, he made a few attempts at more mainstream fair in the hopes of appealing to a new and wider audience. The patrons who paid to see Carnival Magic in theaters were probably scratching their heads at this supposed family film with heavy doses of alcoholism, domestic violence, and animal cruelty. In so much as Al’s horror movies were never particularly scary; this attempt at a G rated kid’s movie isn’t exactly wholesome!
The plot of Carnival Magic centers on Markov the Magnificent, a magician and sometimes mentalist who is one of the acts in a travelling carnival. To save the failing show from financial ruin, Markov puts his chimpanzee companion, Alexander the great, into his act to attract new business. It just so happens that Alex can talk, in a guttural mumbling sort of way, so huge crowds from rural towns (represented by thirty to forty unpaid extras) swarm the faded tents to see him. This doesn’t sit well with Kirk, the resident wild animal trainer, who was used to star billing, so he conspires with a badly dubbed evil scientist to kidnap Alex so he can be experimented on. Eventually Alex is located and a menagerie of carnie folk storms the doctor’s estate laboratory to rescue their friend and end the film on an upbeat note.
Fans used to the schizophrenic style of many of Adamson’s earlier films may be shocked at the reasonable coherence of this one. In this instance Al was a director for hire for producer Elvin Feltner who also wrote the script. Apparently Feltner was thoroughly convinced in 1981 that family films were on their way back into style and decided to position himself ahead of the curve with this feature. Unfortunately, even if he had been right about the movie market, the resulting product wasn’t likely to win any awards from parent/teacher groups. On the commentary track it is mentioned that a shorter and more risqué version of the film was discovered which may be Adamson’s intended cut but it is not included here for comparison.
The cast is comprised mostly of soap opera personalities and Joe Cirillo, as Kirk, who Feltner continually touts on the commentary for going on to play the police captain in Ghostbusters two years later. When one of the soap opera actresses bailed at the last minute, Adamson cast his wife, Regina Carrol, in the role of the magician’s assistant. This would be the Freak-Out Girl’s final performance prior to her premature death from cancer in 1992. The beautiful cult queen is already looking tired in this film but she still manages a competent performance.
The real star of Carnival Magic is Trudi, the chimp who plays Alexander. The film’s few non-sleep inducing moments come from monkeyshines like Alex stealing a car for a joyride with Feltner’s girlfriend in the back seat. Some of the laughs are unintentional though like when the stunt driver’s hand can clearly be seen holding the wheel while Alex “drives”. The chimp’s dialog almost seems like it was added as an afterthought to the film since no one really responds or his acknowledges his ability to speak and these quick growling utterances are often difficult to understand without the subtitle option turned on.
Carnival Magic seems to have dropped into the black hole of cinema obscurity after a few years of spotty regional releases. Television broadcasts apparently never happened and home video versions were scarce. Many Adamson fans considered this film a lost treasure since it was almost impossible to find but now may have second thoughts when they see a film very unlike the director’s earlier work. One thing Carnival Magic does succeed at though is capturing the traveling carnivals that were still very popular throughout the 1970’s but have since died off almost entirely. The fact that Feltner rented an actual functioning carnival for the shoot gives the film a welcome air of realism.
The Product: Film Chest/Cultra has given Carnival Magic the five star treatment with a brand new high definition transfer and an economically priced two disc DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack. The impressive selection of bonus materials includes an interview and feature length commentary with producer Elvin Feltner, silent outtakes that offer some unused but inconsequential scenes, trailers, and a postcard. While these are nice, I would have easily traded them all to see Al Adamson’s original edit of the film before Feltner got to it.
The Bottom Line: Carnival Magic is a cinema rarity and will appeal to Al Adamson fans just so they can see his style seep through even a fairly mundane straight film. History buffs will also appreciate the carnival scenes that capture a simpler time before video games and the Internet.