I knew virtually nothing about this strange, supernatural flick aside from it being based on a book by Ray Bradbury (who also penned the screenplay) and I believe THAT particular brand of ignorance, once again, worked in my (and the movies) favor. The first surprise I got was discovering that this spook show was the doings of the Buena Vista Company (AKA Walt Disney Studios). Sure, they’d tackled some surprisingly adult film elements with The Black Hole (1979) and the still cool Dragonslayer (1981) before this but some of this one was a little shocking. The story focus’ largely on two boys in a small town somewhere in the American mid-west (I think) at an undisclosed time (early 50s?). As they go through the humdrum rigors of school and parents, strange things begin to happen about the town. Then, one night, a spectral train pulls in and sets up a creepy carnival. This carnival, run by Mr. Dark (if THAT doesn’t give some sort of indication…!), begins to lure townsfolk with its festive atmosphere but once it has them in its grasp…their souls basically end up on the proverbial chopping block. The two mischievious lads accidentally stumble onto these sinister machinations and wind up in the supernatural crosshairs of Mr. Dark, played with scene-chewing vigor by Jonathan Pryce. This flick is a strange one, but it’s done with such care and, seemingly, precision that it just…works. Apparently the budget was in the $19 000 000 range and it shows. This movie looks great and the special effects are impressively executed; many of which still hold up today. But some of the imagery surprised me…especially with the Disney tag attached. We’re talking images of a childs decapitated (and bloody!) head, kids being set upon by an intimidatingly large army of full grown tarantulas, a sinister as hell witch, kids being spattered with blood…and the overall feeling of dread that the movie rides on. I thought the tone was great but I’m not sure what the original target audience was. Perhaps Disney didn’t either…which would explain the bomb at the box office. But that can’t be held against the actors and crew. Aside from the two boys (who MIGHT have names if I bothered to look), we’ve got Jason Robards as the regretful older father of one of them, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd and, if you blink you’ll miss her, the awesome Pam Grier as The Dust Witch. As simplistic as the core story may be, there are a number of thoughtful sub-plots strewn along the way. Like Robards strained relationship with his son, Will, over his age and medical condition. Or Will’s best friend Jim, who lives in a delusion regarding the truth about his absent father. And a number of others involving other town folk/victims…which went a long way to show us the vulnerabilities that are bound to be exploited by the supernaturally parasitic carnival…and are. Overall, this movie was a pleasantly sinister surprise and I would definitely recommend it to anyone curious about some of Disney’s cinematic (but very watchable) ‘stumbles’ or fans of Ray Bradbury-style fiction.
*Props to my buddy Michael for the ‘title toss’ on this one. Nice one, dude!