The allure of the amusement park, carnival or funfair is twofold—the gaudy, exaggerated colours and characters are tainted with an unsettling creepiness—and this is the reason so many examples of classic and cult horror cinema have purchased a ticket to ride. From the ghoulish psychological implications of authoritative power in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) to the reworking of mythological convention in Vampire Circus (1972) to the pure cinematic fusion of exploitation and avant garde in Santa Sangre (1989), the carnival is a rich, phantasmagorical platform for the genre.
The feature-length directorial debut of Christopher Speeth, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973) was criminally considered lost until Windmill Films released a print on DVD in 2003. The film was subsequently included in Arrow Video’s 2016 collection, American Horror Project (Volume One). In December 2017, Arrow then released a Blu-ray and DVD dual print as a standalone set, which is the subject of this this review.
The term carnival refers historically to the Christian festival of Shrovetide, the pre-Lent celebration in which followers would indulge in soon to be prohibited food and alcohol—and an inversion of regulations, including normal or accepted behaviour. This excess was heightened by costumed parades and parties focused on the grotesque body as a site of death and disease, and social satire, particularly the mockery of authoritative power. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood captures this hedonistic and anarchistic essence perfectly in the simple plot: a cult of monstrous creatures uses the façade of the funfair to feast on the blood of their victims, prolonging their life. Led by the titular Malatesta, played by the enigmatic Daniel Dietrich, the cast includes gleeful turns from Hervé Villechaize as a murderous carnival worker, and Jerome Dempsey as the wonderfully named Mr Blood. A family joins the carnival in order to search for their son, who recently went missing at the fair, and soon find themselves in a murderous funhouse. Though it takes inspiration from similarly themed films such as Carnival of Souls (1962), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Carnival of Blood (1970), Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood has been undeservedly left at the side lines of independent cinema. The latest Arrow release of the film rightfully resurrects Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood for old and new generations alike.
In addition to the 2K print restoration, the set includes the standard definition DVD presentation, original mono audio, and English subtitles. The restoration is a huge improvement on the original print; the heightened colors and black levels bring Malatesta’s carnival to life. However, a firm highlight of this set is most definitely the additional features, exploring the phantasmagorical world of 1970s independent cinema and rightfully decreeing Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood as a staple within this domain.
Speeth, who sadly passed away in 2017, provides a sobering and honest account of low budget filmmaking in The Secrets of Malatesta (2016). Speeth recollects his wish to keep the stage actors he employed in work over the summer months via the project, and directly addresses elements of the film he was unhappy with due to budgetary limitations, such as the editing and restricted camera angles. Conversely, Speeth also charts the film’s creative triumphs. Distinctly aware of the creative freedom permitted from working on the very fringes of independent cinema, Speeth embraced this position fully, adding another dimension to the outlandish world of the film via the canted angles and resourceful décor. The interview is a frank and refreshing window into the obstacles of independent cinema, from production to distribution, and is all the more poignant because this was the only fictional feature film that Speeth directed; he was a documentarian. Speeth sadly made no money from the film, and discusses his delight and surprise at the slow but solid cult following that the film has garnered over the years.
The next additional feature is Crimson Speak (2016), an interview with writer Werner Liepolt. Having already established a career as a playwright, Liepolt was inspired by the legend of Alexander “Sawney” Bean, the man said to have been the head of a clan of cannibalistic Scotsmen sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. Blending this gory subject with social satire, Liepolt created a cult of vampiric ghouls that endure longevity by drinking the blood of their victims, which contributed to the genesis of the name of the cult’s leader, Malatesta. Liepolt wanted something memorable, which hinted at an unnaturally long life, and the name ‘Malatesta’ has some interesting connotations.
The House of Malatesta ruled Rimini between 1295 until 1500, and several smaller jurisdictions after this date. The potential connection to this powerful signorie, and its longstanding rule during the renaissance period, hints at the age and power of the titular character in the film. The reference also lends a distinct Euro-horror flavour to the production, reflected in the striking scene in which Malatesta, surrounded by his apostolic ghouls in a church-like chamber within their city of the (un)dead, watches classic horror films on a giant screen.
This is further suggested when considering that Guido Malatesta was an Italian director and screenwriter specialising in Peplum films (‘sword and sandal’ action/fantasy/historical stories). Maciste contro i mostri (Colossus Against the Monsters/aka Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules, 1962) and Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste (Maciste against the head-hunters/aka Colossus and the Headhunters, 1963) were among some of his most popular works, with the former infamous for its distinct lack of any monsters, let alone ones made from or heralding fire. Though heralded as a cult example of American horror, the film thus contains many nuanced references to European horror cinema: from the aristocratic design of Malatesta’s attire, with its direct reference to the literary villains of the early horror offerings from Hammer Film Productions, to the surplus gore derived from 1960s Italian horror, and the experimental film movements from France in the previous two decades. All of these influences result in a mixed bag of tone, style and atmosphere — all of which is enhanced by the innovative art design.
Malatesta’s Underground (2016) is an interview with art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson. Partners in an architectural firm, the pair were initially approached by Speeth to construct an inflatable room inside the warehouse for interior shots. They organically assumed the role of art director with no previous experience. Like Speeth and Liepolt, Stange and Johnson are honest in their opinions, noting that they weren’t particularly taken with the script but that the finished film grossly deviated, perhaps to its detriment, from it.
The resulting convoluted and sensory experience owes much to the set design. A derelict carnival in Philadelphia was used for the exterior shots to make full use of the film’s extremely limited budget. The effect is a macabre medley of monsters and madness, particularly in the nightmarish underworld that the creatures inhabit, which was constructed inside a warehouse. An inversion of the day world above, all manner of excess, particularly waste material, from the carnival is used to decorate the cult’s ghoulish lair. In using what material was available, including the ingenious decision to use fibreglass insulation as it looked like cotton candy, Stange and Johnson freely admit that their novice approach had its limitations, but that this limitation fed the film’s creativity – and that the film is all the more interesting for it.
Each feature, collecting the experiences of creative team behind the film, is complemented by the wonderful audio commentary from film historian Richard Harland Smith. In his discussion of the wealth of cinematic references to the horror genre, and its monsters, Smith stakes the film firmly within the annals of horror history. In doing so, he includes illuminating facts about the filming locations throughout Philadelphia, as well as the history of local theaters.
This cornucopia of content includes further features, including outtakes, a stills gallery, and a reversible sleeve featuring original artwork from Twins of Evil (1971). The interviews, however, are very much the heart of this release. Like lightning in a bottle, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is one of the rare gems in horror cinema. Borne of creative necessity, a love of the genre, and the license of independent cinema, the monstrous creation has rightfully developed a cult following of its own.