Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Killer Klowns From Outer Spain

If like me, you had a decidedly American education when it came to social studies, your knowledge of Spain’s history is probably about as rich as a bag of sodium-free rice cakes. It’s a shame of course, but thankfully, there are some pretty fascinating filmmakers today toying mightily to create surreal metaphors that play as historical(ish) horror movies. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is the obvious example, but with The Last Circus, director Alex de la Iglesia creates his own odd--though those three letters don’t really do this tale’s bizarreness any form of justice--spin on Franco and the Spanish Civil War...

or maybe he’s just telling a dramatic love story...

or imagining what Taxi Driver would’ve been like if Travis Bickle were a circus clown (aside from it being renamed ‘Comically Undersized Car Driver,’ of course)

It’s not an easy diagnosis.
Quick Plot: When a peaceful children’s circus clown is dragged into battle and immediately thereafter, hard labor military prison, his son Javier grows up sad...sad CLOWN sad, you might even say. After an ill-fated rescue attempt involving some mighty heavy horse shoes, Javier is orphaned. We revisit him some years later in the 1970s, well after peace is declared and Javier (now played by Carlos Areces) has evolved from an awkwardly skinny teen into an awkwardly chubby boy-child starting his first day of work as, you guessed it, a sad clown.

At the circus, we’re introduced to the typical carny lot, from Ramiro the elephant keeper to a bickering couple with doggie training issues to a vertically challenged daredevil biker. Most of note is Sergio, the superstar head clown who’s great with kids but terrible with alcohol, particularly when it’s drunk in the presence of his beautiful acrobat wife Natalia.

A love triangle ensues, following the typical light-hearted rom-com tropes of spousal abuse, sad trumpet face smashes and dead baby jokes. For reasons that won’t be spoiled here, Javier is forced to flee the circus and survive naked in a forest ditch on raw deer meat before becoming a servant dog to the man who killed his father.

Got that? Trust me when I say there’s a whole lot of story points that I can’t cover, some of which includes presidential assassination and Kojak strip shows. At a certain point, Javier undergoes a horrifying self-imposed transformation terrifyingly teased by the tragically underachieving American poster art:

Irons and sulfuric acid are involved. So are squirms.

It all leads to a frantic finale set atop a 500 foot high cross, which Wikipedia was kind enough to tell me was The Valley of the Fallen, a controversial monument ordered by Francisco Franco--himself a supporting player in The Last Circus. As Javier chases Natalia, Sergio chases Javier, the police chase Sergio, and some of the beloved circus folk watch while the soundtrack roars...and roars...and roars.

Subtlety ain’t served at this circus.
The Last Circus is, as you might imagine, an odd bit of cinema. If it were a pizza, you might say the circus is a historical metaphor for 20th century Spanish history, the cheese is pure horror movie, sauce composed of a typical love story and toppings an eclectic mix of circus tricks, some terrifying and others hysterical. 
Stay with me on the food thing. I promise it will make sense (maybe). I liken The Last Circus to a pizza not because I’m hungry but more because a pizza is easily defined by its parts. You know what works or doesn’t work on a large cheese pie, be it a burnt crust or the deliciously fresh mozzarella. Each ingredient is a separate entity, unlike soup or stew or even the more fluid Pan’s Labyrinth, where everything mixes more seamlessly. The Last Circus--a film I do quite like--stumbles a tad in its (perhaps inevitable) disjointedness. Javier’s journey covers everything from sweet puppy love literally coated in cotton candy to playing the role of a mute slave serving a military sadist. Were I more familiar with Spanish history, I imagine I’d be able to better analyze the story and probably appreciate Iglesia’s use of cinematic metaphor. Putting that aside, does The Last Circus hold up as a mere film narrative?

Absolutely. Though the chaos reigns with the furor of a Von Trier talking fox, The Last Circus is something special. The opening 1930s clown-on-the-battlefield feels like a piece of absurdist theater set on cinematic fire, while Areces’ rotund sadness lends the center an unusual heart. The love story works because the actors are interesting and the relationships are clearly about more than just love. Javier is sufficiently sympathetic before being transformed into something insanely frightening, although unfortunately, his Falling Down-like rampage doesn’t quite deliver on the horrifying promises it seems to make. It’s forgiven when the film’s funniest scene closes things out. 
So The Last Circus is also funny, something that I believe will prove more evident upon a repeat viewing. It’s scary, simply because civil war and clowns and mutilated faces and fascism know, SCARY. To call The Last Circus a horror film is a compliment to both the movie and genre. It’s not quite as good as I wanted it to be, but it’s something truly different that delivers on a few--if not all--its fronts.

High Points
Much like A Serbian Film, The Last Circus makes absolutely phenomenal use of its sound, both in the brilliantly composed score to the chilling sound effects
As my undying adoration for the Lou Diamond Philips’ classic The First Power proves, I do love me a good horse stomping
Low Points
Considering some of the pretty incredible visuals at play in The Last Circus, we certainly could’ve done with a more imaginative poster design eh?

Lessons Learned
The greatest war tactic of all time might indeed involve unleashing your secret weapon upon the enemy, and by secret weapon, I am of course referring to a clown armed with a machete

Few skills are less dismal than the gunfire aim of mid-20th century Spanish police officers 
Female elephants are, in a word, possessive creatures

There is no mother. No. Mother. Got that?

See/Skip/Wait It Out Impatient Jerk
The Last Circus is not a perfect film, but it’s something truly unique and incredibly confident about being so. There’s a chance a whole lot of viewers will hate it, but even if the major narratives don’t click for you, the visuals and sound might well be enough to keep your senses sated. Sadly I doubt the film will make a stop at most major theaters, but if the circus comes to your town, it’s absolutely worth the trip. 


  1. Hi, I gave you an I Dig Your Blog award. Paste the link if you want to check it out and pass it on--

  2. Hey, I recognize that monument, I think that's what was atomised in the opening of Jaguar Lives( plug, I know, haha). I'll have to rewatch to find out.
    This movie definitely looks good. Though, do you know if Generalissimo Franco is really still dead in this movie? (*ducks rotten fruit*)

  3. Thank you kindly Keith!

    Chris: Plug away baby, especially when you name a movie with a cast like that! And back to the part where I admit I know NADA about Spanish history!

  4. I'll keep an eye out for it...

  5. I look forward to reading your thoughts when you see it!

  6. Do you know of the Saturday Night Live joke from the 70's about Franco? That's what I was making.

  7. Aaaaaahhhhh I was unfamiliar. Familiarized now!

  8. Certainly one of the more unusual movie plots, but surely as we all know the best tactic in war is the element of suprise and what could be more suprising than a machette welding clown?
    This actually looks alot more glossy and better put together than I expected from the press releases, which made it sound honestly like another direct to video piece of crap, so might just have to give it a look, if only to say that I saw a film were the army use a clown as thier secret weapon.

    Another fun review!

  9. Apparently this is actually one of Spain's biggest budgeted film, so yes, it looks quite incredible. For me, the surprise was that the film was more linear than outright surreal, but it's still something truly special and different. You might not end up liking it, but it will still surprise you most of the way through, which to me is more than enough reason to see a film.

    And I'll probably never end up in a war, but I swear, should the occasion ever arise and I'm standing against a line of machete-wielding clowns, it's martial suicide right then and there.