Surrealist Horror In Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood
Weirdo horror doesn’t get much weirder than Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood.
Like the kills in every Friday the 13th or the dream scenes in Nightmare on Elm Street, the games the Jigsaw Killer made people play were always the selling point
In the soup that is my brain, there’s a memory that, no matter how much I try and wrangle it, I can never grasp. It involves a small wintry village, which is either a model or a Santa’s Village type seasonal attraction, with that weird fake snow made of soft, itchy fabric and tiny houses illuminated by the orange-yellow hue of twinkling lights.
And the whole place had a particularly winter sort of twilight glow, an orange and purple haze that made it always feel like a dream. And, for some reason, my immediate thought as a child was: what would it be like to be stuck here? What is it like to exist in this place that exists entirely for show, in the hours when it has been abandoned by both staff and guests?
This is a memory I’ve only managed to recall recently, and the impetus for that recollection is assuredly the 1973 horror film Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. The plot for the film is as follows: in search of their missing son, Johnny, the Norris family goes to work at Malatesta’s Carnival, an amusement park run by the mysterious Malatesta.
Accompanying the elder Norrises is their young daughter Vena, who ends up experiencing most of the film’s surreal goings-ons. Through her eyes, we meet Mr. Blood, the strange man who represents the park publicly and, eventually, Malatesta, the monster behind the curtain whose charming surface may mask an origin of an ancient evil.
To elaborate further on the plot would feel like a disservice to the tone of Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, as this is a film operating not on a level bound by plot mechanics and worries about story structure, but a film that prizes mood above all other concerns. Nevertheless, I will try and provide a few key images to give readers a better sense of what to expect from this oddity: there are ghoulish cannibals, a mischievous Herve Villechaize, absurdist gore, truly astonishing set design, and a mood of ever-escalating off-kilter surrealism that binds it all together.
This is a Film Where Surrealism is the Norm
The film has a feeling like a half-remembered dream, which is a key to its success, and I think the setting perfectly enables that sensibility. Carnivals, and other tourist attractions like the winter village I mentioned above, have a bizarre duality that makes them a fascinating subject for these sorts of narratives. During the day, these attractions exist as bustling centers of activity, filled with rides, games, snacks, and strange characters, places where you can turn any which way and find something new and exciting to look at.
Additionally, the showy architectural sensibilities of a theme park lends to its own uncanny valley of sorts: low-rent recreations of dazzling vistas and other worlds, copyright-free cartoon characters who are, by design, familiar and unknowable at the same time, large areas obscured by makeshift tunnels, their insides lit only by cheap and gaudy colored lighting perpetually at risk of shutting off entirely, thoroughly unconvincing animatronics, all aiding in the creation of a world that never strives to be authentic and is even more unnerving as a result.
But it’s when night comes that all the uncanny possibilities listed above really come to life, and the imagination gets to work wondering how those elements, so unconvincing in the daylight, can become their own parallel world upon nightfall. It’s that world that captured my imagination as a kid, and it’s that world which Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is so adept at capturing.
The park itself is fairly standard, especially in the daytime, with rickety roller coasters and shoddy skill-testing games populating its landscapes. But when night comes, the glow of the park seems entirely different: a late-night rollercoaster ride has the bluish glow of dusk, and, as the rollercoaster takes each of its twist and turns, the impression is given that we truly have no idea what might be lurking around the next corner.
The film plays that up, often assuming the POV of the rollercoaster rider until the denouement arrives and the rider finds himself suddenly decapitated. It’s surreal, brutal, and darkly humorous, but it plays on the urban legends that plague amusement parks, like rumors of decapitations and other grisly deaths that befell unsuspecting guests.
The Film’s Set Design is Stunning
A key factor to the film’s success is the way it is able to use the innocuous foundation of an amusement park and conjure up the uncanny implications that lie beneath it. As the film develops, we learn that a cannibal family is living beneath the amusement park, with a whole world underground, under the sway of the villainous Malatesta, who’s either a vampire or an ancient evil being.
Their underworld is a thing of beauty, made up of found materials, primarily trash like food wrappers and bubble wrap, that have been repurposed into strange and fantastic forms; most notably an upside-down car that’s been turned into a makeshift hammock, with a garish approximation of a tongue made out of bubble wrap, fabric, and old cups. The impression these marvels of set design give is a nightmare taking elements of our everyday life and mangling them into something new.
Perhaps there’s an extent to which the film itself is repurposing the familiar into new shapes, namely in the way that it transparently wears its influences on its sleeve. The pale-faced ghouls in the film have precedents in both Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls. The film borrows a surreal sensibility from the latter while also alluding to its implications of a carnival-as-purgatory. This element is furthered in how the cannibals watch old silent films nightly, seeming to substitute these nightly rituals for social interaction and, in the process, perhaps convincing themselves that the plots of these films are an accurate reflection of the world they are not able to see.
This sense of aesthetic detritus coming up from below the surface would not be effective were it not for the film’s approach to characters. The film paints the central family, the Norrises, as almost comically normal people. There’s even a certain folksiness to them, especially whenever Mr. Norris refers to his wife as “Mrs. Norris.” It’s through this excessive normality that the film is able to make the thesis more clear: even the blandest of people will succumb to insanity if kept in an insane place for long enough.
This is clear during a scene towards the end when Mr. Norris is murmuring to himself while firing a gun frantically out the window. The director chooses never to show Mr. Norris’ perspective and never fully confirms whether or not he’s actually shooting at oncoming attackers. The effect of the sequence is that Mr. Norris seems just as crazy as the cannibals that may or may not be encroaching on his home.
The film seems to signal this thesis early on, as when Vena meets the Davises, another family employed by the carnival. They’re just as bland as the Norrises and truly unremarkable. After their brief meeting with Vena, the family decides to ride the Tunnel of Love together. They never reemerge from the ride, and later an employee of the carnival finds Mr. Davis’ glasses, cracked and bloodied. It’s a moment that seems to be saying that either the carnival will eat you up or drive you insane.
It’s this emphasis on normalcy that makes Vena such an intriguing protagonist. Vena has a vaguely post-hippie sensibility to her, in that her attitude is very happy-go-lucky, carefree as she aimlessly wanders around the carnival. Even as strange signs and omens emerge, Vena doesn’t seem to have an agenda as she investigates, simply happening upon strange circumstance after strange circumstance. Normally, this quality isn’t ideal for a horror protagonist.
It works well for comedy protagonists (see Inherent Vice, The Big Lebowski, etc.), but horror protagonists typically require some sense of agency, taking action against a villain or trying to investigate a central mystery. Vena, on the other hand, does not resist the circumstances of her new life. This allows the film’s creepy elements to feel all the more nightmarish, as the protagonist who would normally be relied on to fight back finds herself helpless to the surrealism that surrounds her, just like the dreamer does in a nightmare.
The Film Turns Non-Sequiturs Into Nightmares
There came a moment in the film where a queasiness overcame me, a strange feeling I get from time to time when a film seems to have found a nightmare I’d forgotten about and resurrected it before my eyes. This moment finds Vena running away from the cannibals after stumbling through the various levels of their underground world. Suddenly, she’s running into a forest, and it’s daytime, but the audio has dropped out completely except for the discordant hum of the score.
Vena runs across Malatesta, and the camera hovers around the scene with a woozy, dreamy feeling, and we see that Malatesta has some sort of orb that he’s carrying. As with many things in this film, this moment does not come with an explanation. The strange texture of the sequence seems to signal that this sequence is separate from reality, even the already unusual reality of the film.
The best explanation that the film can offer may come in the form of Mr. Blood’s death scene. After Mr. Blood has been caught trying to drink Vena’s blood, Malatesta confronts him and reveals his “face of madness,” a face that causes Mr. Blood to die, presumably of insanity. This moment makes it clear that Malatesta is not just some strange man who’s taken to becoming the patriarch of a cannibal family.
It’s unclear just what he is, but the film alludes to it in a most Lovecraftian manner, implying that he’s just another incarnation of an ancient evil, one with many faces, faces that can bend you to their particular will. Perhaps the carnival itself is the ultimate lure for these figures, offering them plenty of victims in both guests and employees, offering plenty of shadowy corners to hide away, offering a harmless facade that can mask the terror always hidden just beneath. Perhaps the carnival is just another face Malatesta can wear.
If there’s one thing I miss about 1970s cinema in general, it’s the way the looseness of the decade seeped into the films that defined the era. Horror was particularly affected, as looser censorship rules allowed newer, more intense stories to be told. But more than anything, 1970s horror allowed itself to slip away from narrative bounds and be uniquely visceral on a purely sensory level. There are numerous classics that you may associate with this feeling: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Eraserhead, Messiah of Evil.
These are all fantastic films, and I think Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is a worthy addition to that catalog, showing the ways that bold young filmmakers were able to disregard narrative in interesting ways to develop films with tremendous texture, feeling, and mood. It is a shame that this is the only film director Christopher Speeth made, as he was clearly a very talented visual filmmaker.
It would be exciting to see the aesthetic flair and grasp of mood on display here brought to different settings, like the suburbs of Halloween or the rural nightmares of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But, in many ways, it’s hard to imagine Speeth having a more definitive statement than Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood.