Saturday, May 14, 2016

#231: Terror Circus aka Barn of the Naked Dead aka Nightmare Circus (Alan Rudolph, 1974)

To any film buffs looking at the director's name up there and wondering, yes, it is that Alan Rudolph. Rudolph, the son of child star and television director Oscar Rudolph, enjoyed a long, eccentric, and exciting career as a director of arty independent films, serious dramas for adults, and rowdy cult classics (and some that blended all three of these modes) with the occasional mainstream, yet interesting, Hollywood production.
Growing up in Los Angeles with a father who worked in the business, Rudolph was obsessed with film at a young age (though his father's mainstream TV work was pretty far removed from the areas he would explore as a filmmaker). Rudolph never went to film school, but he would shoot student films for pay for lazy UCLA film school students who didn't want to do their own assignments. (When asked in an interview if any of those students became famous directors, Rudolph laughed and said the people who paid him to shoot their films for him all became "accountants, politicians, and lawyers.")
Getting his start as an assistant director, Rudolph worked on a few Hollywood productions and TV movies, and his father got him work on The Brady Bunch, a series the elder man often directed. Rudolph found a mentor much closer to his own sensibility in Robert Altman. Altman hired him as assistant director on The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville, and they wrote the screenplay for Buffalo Bill and the Indians together. The two men remained friends for the remainder of Altman's life, Rudolph appeared as himself in The Player, and Altman produced several of Rudolph's movies.
Rudolph made his initial reputation as director in the late 1970s with the Altmanesque ensemble film Welcome to L.A. and an arty thriller, Remember My Name, starring Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins. He made two of my favorite films of the 1980s, Choose Me and Trouble in Mind, and is also known for Roadie (probably the only movie to star Meat Loaf, Art Carney, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr., Alice Cooper, Gailard Sartain, and Blondie), Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson), Mortal Thoughts (with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Afterglow (with Julie Christie), and the Vonnegut adaptation Breakfast of Champions. His last film was 2002's The Secret Lives of Dentists. I'm not sure if he's retired now or if he withdrew from the business in disgust because of blockbuster mania.
Tucked away in a mostly forgotten corner of Rudolph's career are two low-budget exploitation horror films he directed during his years of gainful employment as an assistant director. The first, Premonition, was about a hippie rock band partying in the countryside who decide to smoke a mysterious red plant that gives them premonitions of their deaths. Groovy. The second, and the one we are concerning ourselves with today, is Terror Circus. This had the potential to be a very unpleasant film, considering it's one of those crazy-guy-kidnaps-women-and-tortures-them movies that I generally find unwatchable. In Rudolph's hands, it's not exactly a success, but it is incredibly weird, technically competent, more ambiguous in intent than most of these kinds of films, and visually exciting, with lots of great landscape shots.
Terror Circus begins with a creepy guy in a fur-lined coat standing on a tower and looking at the surrounding countryside with binoculars. After this intriguing opening, we turn to a trio of women driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for a nightclub showgirl job. The women playing these roles, like Rudolph, all have childhood connections to show business. Manuela Thiess, who plays Simone, is the daughter and stepdaughter, respectively, of actors Ursula Thiess and Robert Taylor. Gyl Roland, who plays Corinne, is the daughter of actors Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett, the niece of actor Joan Bennett and songwriter Morton Downey, and the first cousin of the late, loudmouthed, chain-smoking, right-wing trash TV talk show host Morton Downey Jr. Wow. Finally, Sherry Alberoni, who plays Sheri, was a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-1950s and was primarily a voice actor for cartoons, including Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo, Super Friends, and The Mighty Orbots. This is a strange planet.
Anyway, our showgirls decide to take an unmarked shortcut in the Nevada desert, which is a stupid idea both in horror movies and in life, and their car breaks down in the middle of the night. A mustachioed '70s dude in the gas station warned them about their radiator, but they thought he was just giving them the business. The dude business. Sadly, he was right. They spend the rest of the night in their car and are awakened by a seemingly nice guy who volunteers to drive them to his farmhouse to call for help. This nice guy is not nice at all. His name is Andre (Andrew Prine), and he is the creep from the tower with the binoculars.
Andre takes them to his place in his sweet '70s jeep and says he'll be right back. As he putters around in his house, the women take a look around. They find a caged puma, which is highly unusual, even for loners in the Nevada desert, and a barn with a sign on it indicating that the structure is a circus. They go inside to explore the circus and instead find roughly a dozen women chained up. A few of them have gone insane. One has been there for six months. Andre comes back and chains up the showgirls.
In Andre's sick mind, women are nothing more than wild animals who must be tamed. He wants to train them to obey and perform tricks. When the women are trained to his liking, he will present them as the greatest circus menagerie in the world. If they displease him, he smears them with animal blood and sets them free but also sets free his puma. If they can outrun the puma, they are free to leave. No one has outrun the puma yet.
As if all this wasn't weird enough, the site of the barn is near a government nuclear testing site. This may partially explain Andre's madness, and it also seems to fully explain Andre's father, a mutant cannibal who needs to be locked in a shed or he'll eat everyone's faces off. Andre's mother, wisely, abandoned the family 10 years ago and fled to Chicago, which was a really great move for her. Unfortunately, Simone greatly resembles Andre's mother, so Andre decides it is her. This seems to bode well for an escape plan, but no one figured on the mutant cannibal dad. Meanwhile, the women's exasperated agent hits the road to try to find them. That agent is played by the late Chuck Niles, a beloved Los Angeles jazz DJ who is the only jazz DJ to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
This movie has it all. Mutant cannibals, psycho circus proprietors, government nuke testing, pumas, showgirls, Hollywood agents, jeeps, mustaches, small-town drunks. I got a bit weary of scenes of Andre hitting the women with his bullwhip, but on the whole, Rudolph goes light on the torture, eschews rape entirely (I could easily see a much sleazier director filling this movie with sexual violence), and presents only one brief scene of gratuitous nudity (probably contractually obligated). I realize this is a bit like praising a kid for only hitting his sibling once instead of twice, but Rudolph makes this film more perverse and interesting and less nauseating and offensive than it most likely would have been in someone else's hands.
The film, which Rudolph didn't write, is partly sexist trash, but a case could be made that Andre is an exaggerated critique of how men treat women. There's a bit of having your cake and eating it with this approach because creeps who like to see women forced into submission as entertainment will find plenty to enjoy, but Rudolph is much smarter and more eccentric and detail-oriented than your run-of-the-mill exploitation hack. It's definitely an oddity in his career, but a fascinating one. I can't entirely recommend it, but it's worth a look for fans of low-budget '70s movies, horror, and Alan Rudolph completists.

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