Studio: Uncork’d Entertainment
Director: Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray
Writer: James Cullen Bressack, Zack Ward, Sean Sellars
Producer: Gerald Webb, Christopher Ray, James Cullen Bressack
Stars: Jonathan Lipnicki, Tim Abell, Victoria Konefal, Nicole Fox, Ted Monte, Cameron Jebo, Sinjin Rosa, Erin Micklow, Weston Cage, Richard Moll, Mark Christopher Lawrence
Eight influencers in the genre fandom community are summoned to survive a demented ringmaster’s haunted house of horrors.
Has anyone in reality ever offered a significant sum to participants able to survive a true house of horrors? Because it happens with some regularity in horror films, and comes up once more as the starting point for “Circus Kane.”
Master magician Balthazar Kane was a pop culture fixture in the 1980s. A little bit of Captain Spaulding mixed with a more macabre Elvira, Kane toured his traveling horror sideshow to minor acclaim until he was convicted of manslaughter for a fatal fire that killed a circus strongman.
After a long absence, Balthazar Kane has recently resurfaced. Having constructed a booby-trapped maze in a mysterious mansion, Kane concocts a contest with a $250,000 prize. Competing for that prize are a movie memorabilia collector, a film critic, a Scream Queen, a rocker, a gamer, a teen, and two bloggers. Kane selected this specific octet because of their social media status, as every last one of them is an influencer in the horror community, and he wants their followers to see them suffer.
Directed by Christopher Ray, “Circus Kane” was written by Zack Ward and James Cullen Bressack. Ward and Bressack have been particularly prolific in pumping out DTV thrillers, with around two dozen low-end indies to their names between 2016 and 2017 alone. Quantity overshadows quality here, as their M.O. is generally to get in, get out, and move on to the next one asap.
With this script, Ward and Bressack seem to be working out some cathartic wish fulfillment, possibly born from a bit of animosity over criticism of their previous movies. As someone who has written unfavorable reviews of several films from people associated with this production, not just the writers, it is actually flattering to think that maybe their revenge fantasy indirectly aims at me in some way.
They may have less reason to shake fists in my general direction after this review of “Circus Kane,” since I’d say the film’s simple slasher style makes it this team’s most enjoyable effort to date. I’ll salt that compliment slightly by acknowledging it is a low bar to hurdle. While you won’t be imploring friends to vault it to the top of their watch lists, “Circus Kane” works well enough for empty calorie entertainment.
If the writing were better, “Circus Kane” could go farther than filling a late-night cable timeslot. Much of the dialogue is occupied by annoying movie quotes, a gimmick that mildly amuses before being beaten six feet under the ground. One character literally says, “hey, that door just opened” when a door opens, in one example of another line with no value whatsoever.
Tim Abell sharply stands out as the menacingly mysterious Balthazar Kane. He relishes his ringmaster role in a manner similar to Colin Cunningham of SyFy’s “Blood Drive,” but tuned down a touch to emphasize creepy over campy. Except again, the screenplay saddles him with not one, but two longwinded madman monologues during an overwrought climax. More meaningful material and Kane and Abell might have more room to gel.
The filmmakers also fall into a trap where instead of considering what is best for the story, they favor what is best for their buddies. “Circus Kane” packs in several quick hits with disposable characters, from a cutaway close-up on a homeless man to a throwaway interaction with a mail carrier. It’s no stretch to assume these are in-joke inclusions or favors for friends who need demo reel clips. The movie doesn’t benefit from these bits at all, so what else would be the point?
Production design is a matter of half-full or half-empty perspective. “Circus Kane” looks as though it were filmed in one cramped room, continually redressed to appear unique each time. Normally, that might earn a ding. Yet here, effort is genuinely commendable. You’re never going to buy the ripple effects as legitimate heat waves emanating from a floor, for instance. But scan around to take in how many props are included or setups constructed and you can see that “Circus Kane” doesn’t take a lazy route on this front.
Commitment like this helps viewers feel better about looking the other way to get into the gruesomeness. Kills have a manic madness befitting the film’s tone. “Circus Kane” doesn’t look like a retro VHS rental, though it does have some spirit of throwback horror where inventive deaths were king, and all other considerations came second.
Rushing the writing as well as the filming holds back “Circus Kane” from nabbing a better score. It’s apparent that the crew ran out of available light to properly shoot the finale. There are conspicuously no turnaround shots on the second party confronting the final villain, and only tight close-ups on the two key characters. This is a poor lead to a messy reveal. This twist isn’t complex, but requires pause for processing because square clues are retroactively shoved into round holes.
For what it is, which is that aforementioned empty calorie entertainment, “Circus Kane” fits the basic bill. Missing a higher mark makes me wish Ward, Bressack, et al. would put more elbow grease into improving projects like this, instead of spreading themselves across multiple mediocre movies.
Review Score: 65