Sunday, April 19, 2009

Carnival Magic (1981, Al Adamson)

Carnival Magic was the second film on The New Beverly Cinema's double bill with Surf II. The curators of Cinemapocalypse hosted a print with a frightening origin and a curse banishing it from the light of day. The print was found in the home of lifelong 60s and 70s shlock director Al Adamson after he was murdered in his home and the completed independent production never reached the drive-ins. There were no prints struck except the master. Literally only a few hundred people have seen the film, so I commend the guys for taking it on tour.

That said, those hipsters didn't give the film a fair shake. There's a genuine sleazy magic that doesn't cross the line excepting a couple of ways risque by today's hypersensitive standards; a drunken villainous lion tamer who slaps around his moll and a throwaway derisive remark about India. Oh yes, and a poorly framed shot in which the kindly carnival owner's daughter appears to be pleasuring the talking chimp, Alexander the Great.

Alex is played by a very old chimp actor. The expressions of an older chimp on screen are a little more unpredictable, if only since Alex's "voice" is dubbed onto the one or two seconds at a time he opens his lips at a time for pithy zingers like "Whatta woman" and "Rats." His big motor vehicle chase scene, practically a requisite in the days of Clint Eastwood's breakout Every Which Way monkey road movies, comes early and is never equalled.

Don Stewart swarthy-mystical magician Markov takes up the heart of the film, connecting everyone with his powers of real magic displayed over and over with scenes of his act with Alex doing tricks that should be impossible except that we're watching a film and there are CUTS. MAGIC ISN'T REAL.

Markov has kept the chimp from exposure until one day he and Alex turn the carnival's fortunes around. Eventually a local scientist - who is seen with beard, glasses and clipboard chillingly taking notes upon Alex and Markov's very first performance - gets the idea to bribe that drunken lion tamer into stealing Alex and long time before that, the carnival's young "PR man" strikes up a romance with the daughter who was renamed "Bud" and dressed as a boy when her mother died. She may also be way too young for him, yet they honestly get engaged.

Corny and creepy all at once is what characterizes this movie. Adamson let his sentimental side show here and when the b-movie greasiness leaks through the cracks in the form of too many hairy exposed chests or the unmistakable aura of cheapness. There is a tenderness of heart in this cheap earnestness that I beg you to let in if you're ever in the handful of people who will ever see this movie on Cinemassacre's tour.

The audiences in this film are the most special part. Not the hipsters in the crowd hunting rabidly for things to laugh at, but the North and South Carolina locals Adamson apparently rounded up to pad the many scenes of carnival magic and their faces are a candid cross section of rural suburbanites happy with cornball showmanship, feeling like a documentary plus one talking monkey during these stretches. One Carolinian local glam girl, I think named "Gaga" was both a production assistant and played a nurse.


Lars Nilsen said...

I think we all feel the sweetness of the film and we truly hold Al Adamson in great esteem.

Also, we are not hipsters.

Chip Butty said...

That's cool. Please excuse the blanket hipster attack, I had a guy behind me who was laughing at times when the film was being attempting sweetness awkwardly but earnestly.

And thanks again for taking this fascinating rarity on tour!