It’s no mystery to regular readers of Anything Horror that I’ve been looking forward to seeing Billy “Bloody Bill” Pon’s debut feature length film, CIRCUS OF THE DEAD. I’ve been following the development of this film since around September 2012 and can thankfully write that it was well worth the wait!! CIRCUS OF THE DEAD has easily taken an early lead as being my favorite film of 2014. This, though, presents a problem when trying to sit down and write the review. See, the better a film is and the more I like it, the more boring a review it makes. Hold on, hold on … hear me out. When I watch a film I absolutely hate and which makes the bile rise up in my throat, this results in a review where I can unleash the dogs and rant and rave about what a terrible film it was. But when I watch a film where I have nothing bad to say about 98% of the film, where’s the fun? No rants, no raves!! I know that my brother-in-arms, Deggsy, knows exactly what I’m talking about.
First let me say that CIRCUS OF THE DEAD is not your standard “killer clown” movie. The clowns aren’t a gimmick here. The clowns in CIRCUS OF THE DEAD are main characters with distinct personalities who are the driving force of the entire plot. The clowns are well defined characters with individual personalities. That being said, they are also frightening as shit!! The lead clown, Papa Corn (Bill Oberst Jr.), is a sadistic, brutal, rapey-kinda clown that will have you sleeping with the lights on. Horror icon Oberst Jr. gives an amazing performance and he brings his patented intensity and rawness to the role. The other clowns include Noodledome the Clown (Ryan Clapp), a bald, chunky clown who is also a cannibal; Mister Blister the Clown (Rusty Edwards), a chain-smoking clown who enjoys getting his hands dirty; Jumbo the Clown (Mike Williams), a midget; and there’s even a special appearance by everyone’s favorite Bloody Billy Pon character, Doll Boy (Sergio Gracida). These clowns live to fuck with people’s lives. They don’t just don’t torture, rape, and kill the person in their possession but ruin his/her entire life. It’s a game to these clowns. But don’t expect the typical humor associated with most killer clowns. This group has only one side and it’s a very dark side indeed. Director Billy Pon, who wrote the story with Lee Ankrum, does a fantastic job with giving us just the right amount of humor in the right places. Most of the humor is very dark and the humor never ruins the intensity of the horrors occurring on screen. Great job guys!!
As CIRCUS OF THE DEAD opens we find Papa Corn focusing his attentions on Donald (Parrish Randall), a husband and father of two adoring daughters. Donald is going though a bit of a mid-life crisis where he’s been wondering a lot about the “what if’s” in his life. “What if I took a different road in life?” “What if I made different choices when younger?” But he loves his wife, Tiffany (Chanel Ryan), and his two kids, Alyssa (Jordan Bell) and Hillary (Madi Lane), and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for them. He’d better because Papa Corn is about to test the limits of that devotion. Papa Corn first notices Donald and his family at the circus. He brings Donald up in the center ring as a volunteer and through a tense scene, manipulates Donald into giving him all kinds of information about him and his family. Big kudos to writers Pon and Ankrum. There’s no standard “canned” or lazy dialogue here. The dialogue in both this scene and the film as a whole is crisp, direct, and intense. Papa Corn is not your typical eye-rolling psychopath. He’s an expert manipulator who knows how to get into the heads of his victims in order to not only torture their bodies but to torture their minds as well. Papa Corn also chooses his victims for very specific reasons and doles out his torments in a kind of morality game. Bill Oberst Jr. gives one helluva performance in a career full of fantastic performances.
The intensity of the film grows as Papa Corn puts Donald through one horrifying situation after the next that would make even Marilyn Burns from the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE feel as though she got off easy. The gas station convenience store scene, the empty movie theater scene, and the end confrontation scene will have you digging your fingers into your couch’s arm rest while you gasp for air. The gore is plentiful and is beautifully executed here by indie special f/x guru Marcus Koch, Heather Buckley, and Matthew Ash. The clown make-up, done by Esau Ramirez, is top notch and doesn’t look like any “killer clown” make-up you’ve seen before. Each clown’s face is painted to give that clown a unique personality and Ramirez was absolutely successful in letting each personality bleed though their make-up.
I could go on forever about CIRCUS OF THE DEAD. I really loved this film and was lucky enough to see two different versions of it (more on this in a second). If I had to find fault with this film it would be with some of the acting, mainly with actress Chanel Ryan. She doesn’t always look comfortable in front of the camera and at times her acting looks forced. But I will say that her head should get a standing ovation (you’ll understand this after you see the film). There’s no doubt though that this film is about the clowns and those psychotic guys really deliver. They are a menacing, frightening bunch who hit all the right notes in their performances which just elevates their terrifying acts. There’s never a moment when you say to yourself, “Those clowns ain’t so bad.” If anything, I’ll probably never take my kids to the circus again!!
If you’re familiar with Billy “Bloody Billy” Pon’s debut short feature, DOLL BOY (which he also wrote with Ankrum), then you know what Pon’s and Ankrum’s minds are capable of. These are two twisted fucks (and I mean that in the most endearing, positive way possible) who aren’t afraid to push the envelop and do and show things in their films that people may not have seen before. Are they doing this for shock value? Absolutely, and why the hell not? It’s obvious these guys absolutely love the horror genre and whether they know it or not they will be instrumental in taking the genre to the next level. Remember the faux-trailer for MISTER FISTER at the beginning of the DOLL BOY dvd? Remember the fetus hanging from the rearview mirror? Well there’s scenes in CIRCUS OF THE DEAD that also push the boundaries of decency (wait until you see that Papa Corn paints both his heads), and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve written it time and time again that indie horror filmmakers are the future of the horror industry and Billy Pon proves that I’m right.
CIRCUS OF THE DEAD is now on the festival circuit and I’m wondering which distributor will have the balls to pick this one up as it is and distribute it? It’s times like this that I wish I was in the distribution game. So keep your eyes peeled if you live in a town that has a horror film festival. You don’t want to miss CIRCUS OF THE DEAD and all the fun, gore, horror, and depravity that comes with it. But don’t be fooled: CIRCUS is also a very dark film that takes many dark twists and turns. If you only enjoy happy endings then you’ll definitely want to steer clear of this one!! But be sure to stick around for a post-end credit scene. You’ll thank me. Don’t miss CIRCUS OF THE DEAD!!
A quick note on the two different versions of CIRCUS that I watched. The first version was the one that premiered at 2014’s Texas Frightmare Weekend. It was a solid version that had the crowd up on their feet cheering. But Pon, being the perfectionist that he is, saw that his film could be better. Pon re-edited CIRCUS OF THE DEAD and made it tighter and improved on the overall flow of the film. There were a few scenes he cut altogether and others that he edited down in order to improve the flow of the film and in order to get to the clowns quicker. Pon is a pro with a helluva eye and made a great film even better!! But best yet is that after the end credits rolled and after the end credit scene (which you’ve got to see), this casually rolls up the screen:
Hell yeah … I’m already counting the days!!
Director: Billy “Bloody Bill” Pon (& co-writer, executive producer, editor, & visual effects supervisor)
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer