As I walk up to the Egyptian Theatre, “Saint/Sinner” wristband in tow, I survey the scene for the world premiere of Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival. To my right, the red carpet is crowded with stars and caged on either side by painted vintage signs that read “The Magician” and “The Tamer”. To my left, a carnie in tattered clothes stands atop his stage, a.k.a. a tired old box sporting yellowing stars, beckons those passing by to join him, as he points his crooked cane to the dancers below, who flash their elongated fingernails in the faces of those who stop and watch, and bounce their bellies in hypnotic movements; tantalizing demons luring men and women alike into the depths of the devil’s carnival.
It’s a cool Tuesday evening in Los Angeles, but the fire roused by the carnival director Darren Lynn Bousman has brought to town has already started to heat things up. This is where all the sinners come to play; a scattered group of lost souls have finally found their safe haven in the welcoming arms of Bousman and crew. Ladies in risqué lingerie dance around joyously despite the sad expression on their painted faces, a chorus of fallen angels slowly make the rounds, singing praises of heaven and all its glory, while a woman in the corner swallows a sword with ease before jutting it back out again, licking the blade in a playful manner. Clowns decorate the area, both living and inanimate, brought to life by the humans who sport their look, or by the bright rainbow lights that decorate their cardboard faces. All of the freaks have been let loose on Hollywood Boulevard, and it couldn’t be more strange and alluring.
Upon entering the theater, I find a ragtag team of misfits up on stage singing songs and making merry music, from a man playing a washboard to a drunken jester falling all over the other musicians and pretending to play the violin. They encourage the crowd to join in, and it’s not long before the entire arena is filled with loud, happy voices. A giant picture of a clown is projected on the wall behind them, and as the motley crew sways to the beat of their music on stage, their movements are captured and projected onto the screen just under the clown’s hands, like little traces of fire lapping at the hooves of the image they all bow down to. Soon, they finish their song, and bring aboard director Bousman, who expresses his gratitude to all of his devoted fans for coming, and stresses the amount of time and effort that went into the making of this film; a staggering four whole years of creative effort about to be shared for the first time with a room full of friends. As he thanks the crowd one last time, the lights dim, the devil appears, and the film begins to roll.
The movie begins at a startling pace, opting out of setting up the story with slow dialogue in favor of a scene that’s full steam ahead, by starting out aboard a roaring train, headed by Lucifer, carrying a band of lost souls to the doorstep of heaven. It’s unclear how the devil showing up at the pearly gates goes over in the higher court, for as soon as the scene is over, Lucifer is back safe and sound in his fiery pits, claiming that soon he will wage a war against God. Apparently, he plans to incite this war by playing his music so loud in hell that those in heaven can hear it, a move that’s anything but bold (or pleasant, one can assume, for those residing in the buffer zone of earth). Suddenly, Satan has a hooded visitor whom he tends to in his private quarters, choosing to recite a story to his new friend over making plans with the Ticket Keeper for the raid on heaven that he supposedly desires.
The visitor’s face remains hidden while he reads, but as he drags his claws over the pages of his large book, Lucifer tells the clothed person a story about two young girls who tried to get into heaven, long ago. The girls are Juno and Cora, and they may have started out as friends, but soon the competition of being admitted into heaven drives them apart when Juno lets her curiosity and thirst for knowledge run wild, while Cora, stricken with fear of being expelled, finds herself too fearful to let loose in the least bit. As Lucifer details the accounts of the two applicants trying out for heaven, he continually refers to them in a language that paints them as horses, even going so far as to refer to the more rambunctious girl, Juno, as “filly”, explaining how they are both merely steeds being trained to spend the rest of their lives after death as slaves to “the author”, a.k.a. God, or in Lucifer’s words, the “pious gangster”. To Lucifer, life in hell is far more bearable than that in heaven, because even if you’re being tortured, at least you still have your dignity.
Sporadic, confusing storytelling characterizes the latest effort from horror guru and Splat Pack member director Darren Lynn Bousman, with moments randomly strung together by songs that don’t further the plot, or ever seem to end. The flimsy premise seems like it’s just there in order to justify all of the musical numbers, which would be fine, if there were more than a just a few stand out pieces throughout. Not surprisingly, the best songs in the film are sung by God (Paul Sorvino) and Lucifer (Terrance Zdunich), but there is one memorable song that encompasses within it the one moment where everything that the film is trying to be briefly clicks and lives up to its potential — “Give Me Two Hallelujahs and an Amen” by the Agent (Adam Pascal). During this scene at a smoky dive bar in heaven, as Pascal belts out his beautiful voice over old carbon microphone, and the melody drifts out hazily unto the dreamy crowd, highlighted by foggy shades of red and blue, his date, Juno, smiles slyly from the corner, so covered in feathers that even her drink holds a mini boa. The band plays with soul, pounding out speedy swing music to all of the fast-talking, bobbed-hair wearing, jazz-obsessed attendees, and for a quick moment, the 1920s throwback is complete, and the film is a complete success. It’s too bad that the entire feature can’t be characterized with the same focus and vision.
There are moments throughout the film that hint at the masterpiece hiding directly beneath the product shown onscreen. The idea of heaven being just as, if not more evil than hell is an interesting thought, especially when writer Terrance Zdunich throws out lines like, “God, that divine pretender” and paints the creator as a big bully who’s impossible to please, and feels that he’s owed eternal rewards in return for making the earth and all of its inhabitants. There are some truly great ideas wrapped up in this messy, shallow display, but when the message is repeatedly bludgeoned over the viewers head, the subtext becomes text, and the lesson is far too obvious to be given any real authority in this otherwise cartoony picture.
At best, Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival is a wonderfully kooky musical that celebrates the odd and unusual by painting the miscreants that plague hell in a fairer light than the seemingly perfect people who decorate the sparse interiors of heaven. At worst, it’s an inconsistent recreation of the first film that ends just as it’s really getting good. For the entire film, Lucifer speaks ill of God, and talks up his plans to attack heaven and engage in war with the man upstairs, while God only says the same, if not worse, about Lucifer. It’s all sacrilege and delightfully distasteful, but the only problem is, there’s no war. There’s not even a battle. Apparently, they’re saving the big showdown for the third and final entry in the series, but as a fan, shouldn’t we be asking why? Why does it take three movies to bring about any sort of action in a movie that’s all about death and mayhem? Why couldn’t they have cut down some of the unnecessary songs in favor of a little bloodshed? Why should we pay the price of a ticket and wait another three years just to see the conclusion of this tale? This is a story of empty threats, starring two big bads who sport names that draw more fear and power than their actual presence. For all of its talk and men puffing their chests up, in the end, Alleluia! is all anticipation, and absolutely no pounce.
I will say that no matter how I feel, or how disappointing this film seems to be, it’s still nice that The Devil’s Carnival exists. For all of those kids out there who like musicals, but can’t relate to any of their Stepford Wives type characters, Bousman has created some common ground; a world where all of the misfits can find each other and feel safe in their dark and twisted home away from home, with musicals made just for them — even if they deserve better, at least they have something that they can identify with, and appreciate on their own terms.