Three girls, Simone, Sheri and Corrine, are heading out for a new life in Sunny Las Vegas when they take a shortcut across the desert in their beaten up vehicle. In line with all good horrors, the car breaks down, and they are left stranded for the night. However imagine their surprise in the morning when a handsome young stranger, Andre, comes to their aid and offers to take them into town. Time is of the essence as the girls are meeting their agent in Las Vegas. Although when the girls arrive at Andre’s ranch it looks like they are not going to make it to their rendezvous after all. Andre has plans of his own; he wants the girls to star in his own circus based show. They are the main attraction, but he feels these new acquisitions are a bit wild, and they need taming first.
Director, cast and crew.
Nightmare Circus was an early venture for director Alan Rudolph who went on to have a diverse career in non-genre films; working with A-listers such as Demi Moore and Bruce Willis in Mortal Thoughts (1991), as well as being nominated for several awards. Having only directed one feature prior to this, Premonition (1972), the lack of experience shows. I would love to know what he thinks of this film now he has had quite a serious, not to mention acclaimed career. Heading the cast is Andrew Prine as Andre. Prine did have a background in grindhouse flicks; notably cult hit Simon King of Witches. Prine puts in a committed performance as weirdo Andre that, unfortunately, is hampered by bad choices in the script and plot development; although he seems to do the best he can with the little he is given as a sexually inadequate and emotionally stunted nutcase. Manuella Theiss plays lead girl Simone; this was to be her last of only four features, puts in a semi convincing performance. For the rest of the girls, no one stands out apart from Jennifer Ashley (Inseminoid) credited as Flower Child; a supporting actress (one of the captive girls), who manages to encapsulate a brilliant Manson family vibe. The rest of the acting ranges from wooden to hysterical.
For B-Grade budget fodder, Nightmare Circus is well filmed. The cinematography is much better than the usual standard for a film of this type. There is a wide variety of techniques employed to capture the essence of a remote desert location; wide camera angles, tracking shots, overhead shots, and extreme close-ups. Although most of the action takes place on the ranch, good use is made of the limited locations, in an attempt to drive up a sense of tension and atmosphere. It is a shame that the same cannot be said for the FX, not that there are many to mention, but those that do appear look cheap in contrast to the attention spend on the rest of the production.
The Highs & Lows.
At first glance, on paper, Nightmare Circus has all the elements to make a fantastic film; creepy loner with mother issues, frightened girls, desolate location, and there is even a mutant man thrown in for good measure. Sadly this excellent idea does not translate to the finished product; with the execution of the plot being sloppy at best. The film is packed full of plot holes, and fails to command any suspense; mainly down to the simple fact not a lot happens for the bulk of the running time. As for the alternate title Barn of the Naked Dead, do not let this fool you, there is a barn, but not expect much of the other two factors.
Kicking off with the brilliant ‘Evil Eyes’ opening tune (which has the air of a Bond theme- albeit grindhouse style), and above par cinematography, one would be fooled into thinking Nightmare Circus has a lot more to offer than your run of the mill B-budget feature. Our three heroines, Simone, Sheri and Corrine, stop at a gas station and swat off some leery attendants, who want to take them out for the night. We are lead to believe these are streetwise no nonsense gals who will take no messing. So far, so good, or so we think, that is until they make their first of many stupid decisions. Taking their beaten up car off route to save some miles, because Little Miss Know-it-all in the back ‘knows a shortcut’; the girls quickly get themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere. The car has had it, and they have to spend the night out in the open. But these girls are not stupid they do lock the doors. The next morning Andre arrives and promises to take them to a place of safety, and this is when the entire film crumbles into the abyss. This Knight in Shining Armour is assembling his own circus, with stray women as the ‘animals’. He has amassed quite a collection which he keeps in his barn for training. By ‘circus’ I mean whip, a cougar, and a ringmaster’s coat. Our valiant heroines are about to become the next additions to his collection. Now in principle I have nothing against this plot line, and it could make for something either supremely bizarre or thrilling if exploited to its full potential. That would be if the guy had a gun or assistants to aid him. As it is he seems to have neither when he captures them- that’s three able bodied women against one spindly man. To add insult to injury, he chains them up in the barn, with the other 10 or so captives, with chains around their necks so loose they could easily be slipped over the head. The fact this was so glaringly obvious made the film a complete insult to the intelligence. Following this the plot seems to lose all momentum. We have the girls whimpering in the barn, Andre spying on them through a peephole, a small amount of nudity, a bit of violence, and a dragging subplot with the agent looking for the girls, which takes up far more screen time than it needs. I did mention another sub-strand with a mutant man, and this is underused. I guess it was supposed to be the shock ending, but as they have done little to build the story into the main plot foundations, it just comes off a slightly lame (plus the make-up effects leave a lot to be desired). There are some bizarre elements slotted in and one of the supporting cast girls has a Manson vibe, but these are just fleeting moments. Sadly as the plot meanders on it gives the viewer too much time to think about the how’s and whys, and they did not add up, at least for me anyway.
Although reasonably filmed and acted out, Terror Circus fails to deliver on structure. Something that could have been a whole lot more begins to feel like a missed opportunity. It’s not sleazy enough to provide much entertainment value on that level. While the violence may have been shocking for its time (although I doubt that) the film does not push the boundaries enough to manage to produce the goods. Casting a complete mental case in the central role could have allowed so many opportunities, and while Prine’s performance is adequate the script sadly does not give him much to work with. It would seem that if the director had spent as much time on the details (such as chains that look like they restrain people) as he did choosing camera angles and lenses, Nightmare Circus could have been a much better picture. Worth a watch for curiosity value at best, but do not go into it expecting too much.