Any reference to horror's early years - the times when Lon Chaney ruled the world and led to the era of Karloff and Lugosi - is welcome in Mike's world, but I didn't really expect a connection between these horror icons and The Last Circus, which was promoted as a bombastic onslaught of violence that might have been the Spanish answer to violent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. In fact, there are some loose parallels between this film and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, both in theme and in execution, though I'm not entirely sure the similar tone was intentional.
The fact that I'm talking about Chaney and Karloff and Tarantino while talking about a flick I didn't really care to see speaks volumes about how surprised I was to find myself caught up in The Last Circus - or, as the Spanish title says, A Sad Trumpet Ballad - as it unfolded before me. I expected it to be a film about sadistic disfigured clowns who run around with high-powered weapons - and, for the most part, it is - but that literal Spanish title is a lot more telling than the American advertisements would have you believe.
Director Alex de la Iglesias may not directly reference his contemporaries, but the opening credit montage - a montage of images that follows the events of the twentieth century and focuses heavily on war imagery - spends several moments featuring Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and even Charles B. Middleton (and his portrayal of the diabolical Ming the Merciless in the initial Flash Gordon serials). This isn't just a cute homage, it's a warning of things to come, because the director's story clearly draws from the tortured-soul-turned-monster themes that filled early horror films.
The plot follows the doomed existence of Javier, the son of a clown who is destined to be a "sad clown" after witnessing his father's involvement in World War II. The father leads the first action-packed sequence - one of the countless moments in the film which feature dudes in clown makeup killing efficiently - before being imprisoned and eventually killed by a vicious general. Before his death, he gets a chance to remind his son of his fate and the one thing that can save him - revenge.
Javier grows up and accepts his circus job as sad clown - destined to be the butt of all jokes and the recipient of much abuse - and meets the two people who seal his tortured fate. One is the funny clown he works for - an abusive and violent drunk named Sergio - and the other is that clown's beautiful girlfriend, the circus' trapeze artist named Natalia. Despite their vast differences, Natalia quickly becomes interested in the portly sad clown - because he's the one person who stands up to Sergio when he tells a dead baby joke. Unfortunately, Natalia is still interested in Sergio too, due to his violent and sexual nature, which creates the conflict that carries the film.
Throughout the film, all three characters are victims in countless ways. Both clowns end up with facial disfigurements and mental maladies, while Natalia is stuck in the middle to witness their madness. All three characters are drawn really well, and the actors that portray them - Carlos Areces as Javier, Antonio de la Torre as Sergio, and Carolina Bang (who is a) incredibly stunning and b) despite her name, NOT a porn star) as Natalia - do a fantastic job of physically throwing themselves into the film. The disconnect between the timid sad clown and the unhinged funny clown is tested as Javier becomes increasingly demented, but continues to be a key to the film through the impressive cliffhanger of a finale.
The least interesting thing about the film is its violence and carnage - which were one of the main selling points of the film in the first place - but that's not saying the brutality is a distraction from the psychological drama on screen. These scenes of bloodshed are the ones that will remind American audiences of people like Tarantino or Rob Zombie, but I got a little distracted from the main story through them. A mid film sequence that brings Javier back into contact with his father's killer seems especially odd as I look back at the film, as this sequence might only be remembered because it blatantly refuses to put clothes on Areces. It's not a bad sequence in total, but when it's compared to the tragic love triangle that unfolds in the first and third acts it seems like filler.
Tragedy, not brutality, is the key word when it comes to The Last Circus for me. Sure, you get a huge, ugly clown running around with machine guns and threatening children, but it's the dramatic turns that mimic the earliest days of horror that sold The Last Circus to me. I'm not sure the end result is really a great film, but I put a lot more thought into this one than I expected to when i saw the first advertisements, and that alone has me excited to experience The Last Circus - or, should I say, A Sad Trumpet Ballad - again. It's a deviously interesting little film.