Written by: Terrance Zdunich
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Emilie Autumn, Terrance Zdunich, and Paul Sorvino
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Where is YOUR heaven hiding?
One of the unspoken—or at least understated—pleasures of being a horror enthusiast is that it feels like an act of rebellion. Those of us who caught this bug at an especially early age have likely always sensed that they were watching something that’s somehow forbidden. You’re not supposed to see exploding heads when you’re only 7 years old, your parents might have said. After slipping into teen years and adulthood, those admonitions evolve into odd looks and disbelief from people who can’t fathom how this enthusiasm still persists. Yes, I still think it’s pretty cool to watch heads explode. It being somewhat illicit only makes it even cooler.
Something tells me Darren Lynn Bousman knows exactly what I’m talking about. With The Devil’s Carnival, he tapped into this thrilling sense of revolt and embracing the weird, the macabre, and the downright sinful. It’s a film that imagines hell as the greatest show below the Earth—once you get past its various torments and punishments, it’s home to like-minded freaks. His follow-up only further embraces the delight of plucking a forbidden fruit and relishing in it—if The Devil’s Carnival was the initiation into this underworld fraternity, then this sequel is the raging party in its aftermath.
As the ending of the first film implied, Hell’s rolling roadshow is bound for heaven. With Satan (Terrence Zdunich) at the helm, an infernal locomotive tears down interdimensional tracks as he and his minions (led by a returning Briana Evigan) break into “Shovel and Dance,” an opening number that pulses with a pent-up energy on the verge of exploding. Hell is coming, and it’s rarely felt more alive than it does here. The revelry eventually yields to a plot, which finds Satan plotting his latest insurrection against God (Paul Sorvino) by leaving his band of misfits and outcasts at the deity’s doorstep.
Before Armageddon can occur however, Satan carves out time to reveal his ultimate plot with a story detailing the saga of fallen angel June (Emilie Autumn). Eschewing the fairy-tale inspired anthology format of the original, Alleluia functions as more of a satiric prequel exposing heavenly flaws and hypocrisy. Upon entering heaven, June is among the latest batch of wide-eyed fillies with dreams of ethereal stardom at Heavenly Productions. When she dares to enter a forbidden relationship with one of God’s right-hand men (and this is not to mention her “impure” thoughts), she unwittingly casts herself as the latest Eve and finds herself shunned, whispered-about pariah.
A breakout star from the first film, Autumn is a natural choice to carry this sequel. So many follow-ups fall into various traps by ceding the spotlight to unexpectedly popular characters and/or shedding too much light on them, and it would appear Alleluia is lead into both with The Painted Doll, who emerged as the first film’s mascot before taking center stage here. Her emergence as this show’s star is no gesture of empty fan-service, however, nor is it an ill-founded turn of events since Bousman and writer Terrance Zdunich have crafted a biting satire around her character, one that posits that, if nothing else, Hell is at least more authentic than Heaven.
Paradise here is reimagined as an eminently phony film studio dangling promises of glamour and fame through the glory of God. However, this isn’t the benevolent, fatherly God from Sunday School—hell, he’s not even the hellfire and brimstone God of the Old Testament. Rather, Sorvino infuses the Heavenly Father with the sleaze of a scumbag gangster-cum-studio-exec who probably has mounds of coke stashed away for personal casting couch auditions. Considering the first film revolved around Hell, it’s no surprise that Heaven’s portrayal is less than flattering, even if it’s painted in broad, tongue-in-cheek strokes. Alleluia carries a streak of blasphemous provocation that can be tough to pull off, but it nimbly walks the line between camp and satire: at its heart, it’s an outrageous burlesque show, albeit one with a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue.
As Alleluia is a feature-length follow-up, it literally provides larger staging grounds. Unloosed from Hell’s backlot carnival, Bousman particularly envisions Heaven as a deceitfully perfect reflection of Golden Age Hollywood and deceptive nostalgia (the latest production, a sort of vintage show tune about Noah’s Ark, especially recalls the era’s showbiz razzmatazz). It’s where starlets flock with starry eyes but are quickly told to know their roles by authority figures (including a pair of goofball Keystone Cop throwbacks): don’t question the creator, they’re told. Don’t crack open these books, lest you incur some divine wrath. Most especially, however, don’t dare have any actual aspirations, be they personal (and especially if they’re sexual) or professional. June’s greatest “sin” is ambition and curiosity, and her subsequent punishment reads like an indictment of Hollywood and hypocritical religious institutions.
Surrounded by a terrific ensemble of familiar faces (many of which return from the first film), Autumn’s dual role as June and the Painted Doll emerges as both the film’s pure soul and twisted heart. Her duality is reflected in a yin-yang performance that has her transform from doe-eyed ingénue to devilish franchise mascot. As June, her subtle curiosity escalates the full-blown revolt of a seductress—even when she’s among the hopeful, hapless throng of new arrivals, June has a distinct streak of defiance that makes her a better fit for hell (this is the rare case where that qualifies as a compliment).
While Bousman’s camera lovingly captures his entire cast (even the heavenly heathens are granted fiendishly catchy musical numbers), it reserves most of its adulation for Lucifer’s motley, ragtag crew. Hell once again falls in the nebulous space between nightmares and daydreams—it’s carries the feverish, sweaty atmosphere of a seedy, backwoods state fair, yet it’s where you can hang out with Elvis and Vincent Price lookalikes. It’s where you find a bizarre camaraderie with your fellow outcasts. It’s Midian by way of Browning’s Freaks and Paradise Lost.
Beneath the film’s garish, candy-colored production design and lavish musical numbers, this unique kinship endures. Alleluia may pick out Hollywood and Heaven as targets, but it’s ultimately more concerned with a freakish band of outsiders that become fraternal avatars for fellow monster kids. By embracing the pleasures of Hell, they become kindred spirits to its audience, and this authenticity and enthusiasm bleed through to patch over the film’s inherent shagginess (once again, this Devil’s Carnival feels like an experimental labor of handcrafted love). Some lost souls only find salvation in fellow cast-offs, the supposed dregs of a society that could never understand them.
When the film’s initial preoccupation with Armageddon seemingly falls by the wayside, it’s another rebellious thumbing of the nose that resonates—after all, it's better to party in hell than to even worry about conquering Heaven just yet.
*Like its predecessor, Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival is currently slated to tour the country as a rolling roadshow event later this month.
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