Color, 1983, 85 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Al Adamson
Starring Don Stewart, Reginal Carrol, Jennifer Houlton, Howard Segal, Joe Cirillo, Mark Weston
Color, 1983, 92 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Al Adamson
Starring Sandra Dee, Don Stewart, Gary Kent, Jack Elam, Sheila Newhouse
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Film Chest (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
By the time of his tragic murder in 1995, director Al Adamson had amassed an insane filmography that's largely known today for its horror titles but also includes everything from biker movies to a sexy musical. His penultimate feature, Carnival Magic, is one of the strangest of them despite the fact that it was intended to cash in on the family audience left high and dry by the struggling Disney at the time (with competitors like Benji picking up the slack). Shot for $225,000 around Gaffney, South Carolina, and shown almost two years after its completion over the course of 1983 in about two dozen theaters, the film vanished from sight for decades until a print was discovered in 2009. By that point an astonished public was more receptive to Adamson's quirky vision of a world where the uncanny is treated like no big thing.
At a carnival run by the aging Stoney Martin (Weston), a feud is in full force between Markov the Magnificent (The Guiding Light's Stewart), who grew up under Buddhist monks in Nepal and has mastered the mystical arts of mesmerism, and the petty, wicked Kirk (Cirillo), who performs the big tiger act. Kirk pressures Stoney into firing Markov, who decides to pack up and head on, but young carny worker Bud (Houlton), whose real name is Ellen, finds a solution. As it turns out, Markov (who lost his pregnant wife in an accident a few years earlier) has one joy in life: Alex, a talking chimp, whom he keeps living in his trailer. Bud talks them into making "Alexander the Great" part of the show, and a delighted Stoney finds the revamped act an immediate money-making headline attraction. Meanwhile Bud strikes up a romance with the carnival's PR man, David (Segal), while Markov is coaxed into getting back to humanity by his magic assistant, Kate (Carroll, Adamson's wife and frequent leading lady). Things get crazier when Alex slips out for a joyride with a hapless sleeping woman inside and starts to draw more attention, with Kirk figuring out a way to get rid of his competitors once and for all.
Much has been made over the years since this film's rediscovery that it seems pretty inappropriate for a G-rated kids' movie given that it incorporates elements of alcoholism, grief, implied abuse, and animal experimentation, though none of it is explicitly handled. However, it's best to remember that this was near the end of an era when a G rating often delivered a regular dose of trauma with far more extreme films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and C.H.O.M.P.S. leaving matinee viewers stunned at what they were seeing. It's also been cited by a few as the worst children's film ever made, though that doesn't seem likely with The Magic Land of Mother Goose, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, and The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure floating around out there. Instead, this one is just... weird. There's regional charm to spare as we get to see locals "enjoying" the baffling magic shows (with and without the talking chimp), and it even wraps up with a parade through town that must have raised lots and lots of questions when the cameras stopped rolling. The nonchalant treatment of Alex should tip viewers off early on that this isn't a film that plays by the normal rules of cinematic sanity, and indeed Adamson and producer Elvin Feltner (who came up with the original story) keep the story swerving all over the place with Markov's character in particular seeming to reveal a new twist about his abilities and personality every ten minutes.
In early 2011, Adamson's once-lost film made its home video debut as a Blu-ray and DVD combo from Film Chest under its short-lived Cultra banner. Like most of the label's early releases, it looked like a good initial scan but is plagued by a ridiculous amount of noise reduction slathered so heavily over the image it goes beyond waxy at times. The element damage has been completely cleaned up but colors are pretty wonky, and the contrast is way too hot. Audio options include a totally superfluous Dolby Digital 5.1 mix along with the original mono (also Dolby Digital), plus Spanish subtitles; you also get an audio commentary with producer Elvin Feltner in conversation with Vinegar Syndromes' Joe Rubin (a year before the company was founded), which covers the shooting in North Carolina, the last-minute casting of Carrol after they lost an unnamed soap star, the strike the almost torpedoed the production by 90 minutes, his thoughts on working with Adamson (and not knowing any of his other work), and the tricks of rounding up a free crowd for your movie. A video interview with Feltner (11m49s) conducted Rubin at a restaurant cover some of the same material but has more about his annoyance with the chimpanzee, the strike scare, and renting out the carnival for three nights with enough PR to get folks to come be in the movie. Also included are an image slideshow (4m40s) of promotional material ("Finest family film since E.T." - Joe Franklin), a reel of silent and slightly edgy outtakes (20m27s) that look better and far less manipulated than the feature itself, the theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and a restoration demo that... doesn't make a very convincing case. In 2012, a fake 3-D version of undetermined origin was also briefly on the market but should be avoided at all costs.
In 2020, Severin Films finally gave us a new scan from that same print without any tinkering; that means you finally get a normal color scheme and no filtering, which makes it a lot more pleasant to sit through. The damage inherent in the original element has been left intact as well so don't be surprised by the specs and occasional stains that pop up on and off throughout. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track sounds fine and pretty comparable to what we've had before, and though the packaging doesn't mention it, optional English SDH subtitles are provided. The Feltner/Rubin audio commentary is ported over here along with the outtakes, trailer, and TV spot, but drops the somewhat redundant Feltner video interview. instead you get "A Boon to Science" (11m47s), a "critical appreciation" by Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen focusing on the wave of apesploitation around the time (from Lancelot Link to Going Ape) as well as the odder, somewhat questionable elements of the story.
But that's not all! You also get Lost, Adamson's final feature film before he decided to head off into real estate instead. A more typical family film outing, it stars Sandra Dee and Don Stewart as Penny and Jeff Morrison who relocate to the boonies of the Utah mountains only to find out that their new home is a lot less ready for habitation than they expected. Dog and farm animal hijinks and landscape painting sessions fill up their time while Penny's daughter, Buddy (Newhouse) - no relation to Bud - grows dissatisfied with the current living arrangement (particularly the necessity of putting down animals) and decides to take off on her own. Much peril ensues with only a friendly mountain man (Elam) offering a chance to get her back home in one piece.
Barely released in theaters in 1983, Lost did the rounds on VHS (sometimes under the title Buddy + Skipper) including a U.S. release from Prism before dropping off the radar. There isn't much of an Adamson signature to be found here apart from the meandering storyline and sometimes off-kilter line deliveries, but there's an obvious kick seeing him join forces with Dee (who retired from features after making this). It's actually quite competently filmed by none other than Gary Graver, who worked on this during his odd side career shooting adult films and just after blessing the world with Trick or Treats. The transfer here is very modest as it appears to be taken from a 16mm film print (quite possibly the only element left), certainly better than VHS as long as your expectations are kept in check. As an unusually extravagant bonus feature, it'll do. You also get a video-sourced trailer and one more really curious addition: The Happy Hobo (22m42s), a collection of silent rushes Adamson shot for a proposed family film for Independent International. It looks an awful lot like the main feature with lots of random carnival coverage, a parade, and a concerned woman in denim running around talking to people about lord knows what. This release is available in a number of different configurations including a Blu-ray and a DVD as well as part of a Bundle of Ghastly Horror, a Bundle a Go Go, the Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection box, and a Carnival Magic bundle featuring a very appropriate t-shirt.
Reviewed on April 22, 2020.