“Carnival Magic” is a forgotten family feature released in 1983 that was filmed in 1981 but looks like it was shot in 1972. It features a talking chimp, telepathic powers, sideshow melodrama, and a cast of buxom women who’ve never heard of a bra before. Did I mention the talking chimp? The picture is a Z-grade curio that’s slowly garnered a cult following over the years, confronting schlock hunters with completely sincere nonsense. I’m not suggesting “Carnival Magic” is a good film, but I will admit to delighting in its peculiar behavior and bootleg turns of plot. In an age where high camp is daily business, it’s amusing to find a 28-year-old film about a wisecracking ape that’s utterly convinced of its emotional resonance.
It seems business is slow for the local carnival, with owner Stoney (Mark Weston, who also co-wrote the script) faced with cutting one of his acts to make ends meet. At the urging of frustrated tiger tamer Kirk (Joe Cirillo), Stoney looks to fire magician Markov (Don Stewart), a solitary man who’d rather hit the streets than reveal his greatest secret: talking chimp pal, Alex (played by Trudi, voiced by Linda Sherwood). At the behest of Stoney’s daughter Ellen (Jennifer Houlton), Markov allows Alex to be revealed to the world, instantly increasing admissions to the carnival, while piquing the interest of an evil scientist eager to dissect the chimp. Markov, tickled with his newfound success but still fiercely guarded, struggles to keep Alex safe when Kirk’s jealousies boil over.
Intended to keep youngsters busy during matinee hours, “Carnival Magic” doesn’t benefit from an extensive budget or any type of production polish. It’s a modest effort with a surefire gimmick in Alex, a less-than-special-effect who speaks quickly and simply when the camera is able to catch Trudi’s open mouth. Director Al Adamson (an exploitation legend) is fully aware of his limitations, sticking to the primary elements of the script to puff up a healthy running time and keep kids entertained. This is why the picture is 50% talking chimp, 25% magic, 10% carnival ride B-roll, and 15% braless women in tight shirts. Adamson knows how to speak to his audience. And their fathers.
Cruelly, there’s something approaching a plot to break up extended stage performances and chimp hijinks. It seems Markov is man in mourning, Kirk is a jealous bastard looking to make trouble for his rival, and Ellen is a tomboy discovering her sexuality. Adamson keeps the melodrama flowing to ground the feature in something other than cheap laughs, but this encourages the cast to actually attempt to act, and that’s not a welcome development. Outside of Stewart (who refuses to wear a shirt for a good chunk of the film) and his appealing pathos, there’s not a professional around, though it’s hard to blame the troupe when they’re forced to sell complex emotions in a film with porno-like production values and, yes, a talking chimp. Adamson keeps the line readings unbearable and the body language mummified, but there’s a peaceful quality to the substandard performances that’s endearing, sold by actors enjoying a chance to make a big screen miracle in the middle of North and South Carolina.
When the story isn’t being hustled along, “Carnival Magic” puts on a show of sorts, highlighting Markov’s mysterious mental communication with Alex, along with his sleight of hand showmanship, explored in a few extended sequences of illusion prowess. There’s also some wackiness with Alex, including a mid-movie car chase where our chimp hero steals an automobile with a busty blonde sleeping in the back seat. Before you can say “Smokey and the Bandit,” the cops are after the hairy hooligan, chasing him down as the running time is padded with giggles and jiggles. Of course, such merriment is harshly arranged to break up the heartfelt expulsion of woe and maturity from Markov and Ellen, but Adamson doesn’t appear to care about delicate timing, as long as the basic requirements of comedy and drama are covered.
The AVC encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation is as good as can be expected for such an obscure title, with the feature handed a proficient restoration. The image is largely free of damage, with only rare instances of nicks and scratches hinting at the previous condition of the picture. Oddly, colors are generally muted, with that lush sense of celluloid scrubbed away in favor of a clean look, with hues lacking everywhere but the most intense of carnival scenes. Shadow detail is acceptable, only muddying up during evening sequences. Again, for a budget title, the transfer is miraculous. Nevertheless, the image could’ve been massaged further, replicating the theatrical experience.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix suffers from age, with distortion clouding up a majority of the dialogue exchanges. The blend of scoring and verbal interactions is acceptable, but never remarkable, and looping is a bit too pronounced at times, falling slightly out of synch. Atmospherics are hearty with large crowds and carnival visits, contributing a certain community energy that helps to appreciate the locations. Low-end keeps quiet, while slapstick finds some minor directional activity. A 2.0 track is also available.
Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with cult film historian Joe Rubin and producer Elvin Feltner maintains a steady stream of information, with the pair leisurely walking through the filmmaking experience. Feltner is a bit older these days, but his memory remains surprisingly fresh, nudged along by Russo’s questions and research. Anything there is to know about “Carnival Magic” is provided here (e.g. the history of the chimp, the casting, carnival environments, and the threadbare release), which is the highest compliment I can pay to this track. It’s not the most charismatic listen, but the essentials are provided with care.
“Interview with Elvin Feltner” (11:49) returns to the producer of the film, perhaps the only living member of the production left to speak about the movie. A friendly fellow, Feltner walks through the development and casting of the film, chatting with Rubin and an unidentified man at a diner during lunch. Why we need to see these guys eat, I have no idea. Still, the producer’s perspective is invaluable, shedding a great deal of light on how this film came to me.
“Slide Show” (4:40) is a collection of press kit pages, press clippings from local newspapers, movie ads, and publicity stills.
“Outtakes” (20:27) presents a series of deleted scenes and multiple takes from the film shoot. Unfortunately, the footage is offered here without the benefit of sound, though the visual are potent enough, displaying actresses and illusions.
“Restoration Demo” (1:05) displays the work that went into the film’s HD debut, highlighting the removal of print damage. However, color has clearly been lost in the process, revealing lush hues and skintones of the original print that were washed away in the digital bath. This is a rare occasion where the restoration actually appears to have hurt the image quality.
A Theatrical Trailer and T.V. Spot are included.
“Carnival Magic” takes an extraordinary turn in the final reel, where Alex is kidnapped by the evil scientist and taken to a lab for vivisection. Naturally, the only course of action left for our chimp pal is to attempt suicide! Yikes. Adamson shamelessly pokes for tears with this drastic climax, which also includes the brutal beating of a woman (keep in mind this sucker is rated G) and an odd promise of a sequel. Thankfully, a proper follow-up never materialized, as I believe the world would implode if faced with another adventure with Alex, Markov, and all these large-breasted ladies who are unfamiliar with Victoria and her many secrets.