Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Carnival Magic

Goodbye Mr. Chimps

Carnival Magic
USA 1983 Directed by Al Adamson
Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

You know, it would be easy to just ridicule Carnival Magic for various reasons and, looking at various mentions on the internet... many have. I’m really not going to do that but, if you want the crazy Al Adamson style outrageous bits as a fast fix before I add my own two cents (or two pence as it is over here in the UK), then I’ll cover them right now by just saying that the film features, as a character, a talking chimpanzee... and nobody really questions the fact that the chimp can talk other than the evil vivisectionist doctor who is brought in to add the drama and conflict for the second half of the movie. The chimp, called Alexander The Great (or Alex) in the movie was played by Trudi The Chimp (and is credited as such in the movie) and was really a bit too old to be working in films at this time. Chimpanzees tend to get fairly cranky and fierce as they reach a certain age and, it’s my understanding from watching the documentary Blood and Flesh - The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson  (reviewed here) that the chimp did send one or two of the actors to the hospital during the filming.

So that’s the silly stuff out of the way and, yes, it’s good silly stuff and worth its weight in gold. Now let’s look at the rest of it.

Carnival Magic was a rare family film made by Adamson, his penultimate released movie and one of two ‘family projects’ which were nothing like any of his previous exploitation films. It turns out, a travelling carnival is what we in the UK call a fun fair so, I’m glad I got that cleared up in my head. It also seems to have a circus attached to it.

It was the last film to feature his wife and muse, actress Regina Carrol, before she succumbed finally to cancer in the early 1990s. Now, I’ve seen Carrol be both bad and okay in Adamson’s films but she’s actually very good here in the minor role of Markov’s assistant. Markov is the magician of the carnival, played by Don Stewart. He’s a friend to Alex, who is his co-performer in his magic act. Regina Carrol’s character Kate is obviously interested in Markov, who is portrayed as some kind of truly magical shamen-like superman in the film... but Markov can’t get over the death of his former wife. It’s my belief the early romantic overtures between Kate and Markov which don’t quite erupt here were being saved for the sequel, which is perhaps why Regina Carrol is slightly sidelined here... she was presumably going to be a major element in the next movie and at the finish of the end credits the sequel is even teased with a message saying... “So long for now. See you next year in More Carnival Magic.” Honestly, I wish that had happened because a) Carrol possibly does her best and most naturalistic work here in an Adamson film and b) because, surprisingly, I genuinely liked this calm, gentle family film.

The film itself starts off with credits over the carny folk setting up the fair and then shows various customers joining the proceedings. It’s a fair which is down on its luck but the owner, Stoney (played by Mark Weston), has his daughter Ellen (played by Jennifer Houlton) and his publicist (who are developing a romantic relationship) to look out for him. Then he discovers his magician, who he is about to fire, lives with a talking monkey and, of course, the act draws people in from far and wide and the carnival is a major success again. Then there are a load of shenanigans like Alex the chimp taking one of the customers cars (with a young lady sleeping in the back seat) and leading the local police on a merry car chase but, despite his destruction of private property, this seems to have no consequences in the scheme of things at all, with a throwaway line in the next scene mentioning that the chimp is on six months probation for driving without a licence.

And then there’s the whole evil doctor who, with the help of an alcoholic, abusing tiger tamer... kidnaps the chimp and takes him to his vivisection lab. Alex, when rescued, does actually die from what looks like suiciding on nearby poison but, due to Markov’s inadvertent medicine man powers, he’s up and around again by the end of the picture. And there’s really nothing remarkable about the film but it is very engaging and I had a quite moving time with it actually, given it’s also the last film with Regina Carrol in it.

And, after a delayed release in 1983, three years after it was made, it slumped immediately at the box office and very quickly vanished without trace. It was considered a lost film as no prints of it were known to exist. End of story.


A decade or more later, when a cinema was a venue for some punk rock concerts and they were looking for films to screen behind the bands as they played, somebody discovered the five cans of something hand labelled up as “Carnival Fucking Magic”. In an extra on this Blu Ray disc, part of Severin’s Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection box set, the story is told of how the film was screened silently behind the band and the crowd were suddenly much more interested in what the heck was going on in the film than the various music acts. So a cinema owner rescued it and it started turning up in a few performances and garnering something of a cult audience (even making the cut of the horribly disrespectful TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return).

The vinegar syndrome on the cans was pretty bad but Severin (possibly with the help of the company by the same name s the condition, Vinegar Syndrome, who it seems have helped out with some of the prints and extras in this mighty set) have done an absolutely excellent job of restoring Carnival Magic and it looks almost brand new for most of the film. I knew nothing about this movie but I’m pleased I’ve seen it as I do like gentle, pleasant films which drift along at their own pace. Would I recommend it to anyone? Well, probably not unless you’re really into Adamson but, like I said, I had a really good time with it and I do think some people will get something out of it. It seems to have a small following of people who are passionate about it... perhaps for the wrong reasons but, that’s okay, the movie is now at least being seen by people. And that’s usually all a director wants.

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