If I told you that there was a way for you to combine a viewing of House on Haunted Hill, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Saw, Scream, It, and pieces of every Boris Karloff horror film cameo from the 1960s all in a single 1-hour and 28-minute sitting, would you watch? That’s what you’re getting when you sit down with the Uncork’d Entertainment production of Circus Kane (2017), a video-on-demand thriller. The film stars Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire, Stuart Little) as Scott, Mark Christopher Lawrence (Terminator 2, The Pursuit of Happyness) as Billy, Tim Abell (We Were Soldiers, Criminal Minds) as Balthazar Kane, and Victoria Konefal (Forgetting Sandy Glass, Modern Family) as Tracy. The film also features a significantly tongue-in-cheek creepy cameo by Richard Moll (House, Night Court) as the Pale Man. Rounding out the primary cast are Ted Monte as Big Ed, Nicole Arianna Fox as Carrie, Cameron Jebo as Greg, Sinjin Rosa as Jake, and Erin Micklow as Roxy.
The tale revolves around seven social media horror influencers who are offered a chance to win $250,000 each if they can make it through a haunted attraction created by former circus master Kane (Abell). However, Kane’s past swirls in controversy and rumors of murder. As the group of invitees rides in the back of a van toward the mysterious new attraction, we learn that each of them has some knowledge of Kane and his past. Obnoxious comic store owner Big Ed (Monte), who has a heart condition and regularly insists he is Batman, reveals that part of Kane’s original act was to invite a member of his audience to walk a tightrope. As the unlucky individual proceeded, Kane would shake the rope, causing his hapless victim to fall and impale himself on a stake. Big Ed notes that he saw Kane’s performance multiple times and that each time the same person from the audience was selected and “died” the same way. So there’s nothing to fear about Kane’s newest attraction. Right?
As they ride, the group in the back of the van are greeted by a mysterious video message from Balthazar Kane himself, who remains hidden in the shadows. Although he tends to speak in riddle and rhyme, the group eventually determine that they’re there because of their social media influence and that Kane merely wants them to post about what they see to bring customers to his new haunt. While in the van, they are gassed in a Joker-like fashion; one presumes so they cannot know how long their journey to the haunt was, although an actual reason for knocking them out is never provided.
When they arrive, the group is met by the Pale Man (Moll), who wishes them good luck and then locks them in and pretty much disappears for the remainder of the film in what seems like a 1960s Karloff cameo nod. Naturally, the group enters the house assuming they’re going to enjoy some standard Halloween haunted attraction. What they find instead is that they are being picked off one-by-one; that the haunt isn’t a contest for the monetary reward so much as it is a fight to survive.
I was certainly not bored by this film. The action is intense, the makeup and special effects are impressive, and the majority of the actors are convincing in their roles. Director Christopher Ray knows how to frame a shot and is excellent at hiding things in plain sight, especially when the film’s protagonists are almost certain they’re alone in a given room. It is also safe to say that the riddles the group must solve throughout the haunt are smart; not too simplistic or predictable, although you might be able to figure out a few of them before the protagonists do. Indeed, Circus Kane was able to hold my interest for the entirety of its running time.
However, there were a few things about the film that turned me off. For example, we know from the beginning that Tracy (Victoria Konefal) survives the haunt. She is being interviewed about her experiences by a police detective early on in the film. That makes tension complicated when she eventually confronts Kane himself later in the movie. Moreover, it’s hard to tell about whom among the group of protagonists the viewer should genuinely care. More time and energy seems to be given to Monte’s Big Ed in the beginning than to Scott (Lipnicki), Billy (Lawrence), or Konefal (Tracy), although each of them is listed before Monte in the credits. That made me initially believe the film was going to be more about Ed than any of the others.
The characters tend to over-explain their circumstances in nearly every situation they encounter throughout the film. One of the basics of fiction (visual or otherwise) is “show, don’t tell.” I think this movie suffers a bit from too much exposition about what the protagonists are thinking and feeling instead of only showing it to us. This over-exposition includes too much explanation of what should have been one-liners (there’s a Scooby Doo gag at one point that goes on way too long). Much of the exposition issues might have been a simple scripting and time fill problem because Ray’s direction in this film does not lead me to believe that he does not understand the difference between showing and telling in a visual medium.
Conversely, I do not think the Balthazar Kane and Travis (Angelina Capozzoli) backstory is explained enough. This part of the film story is told in flashback at the beginning, middle, and close of the story. Travis is a young protege of Kane, who wants to learn the ways of illusion and magic. Understanding the relationship between circus master Kane and the young protege–not to mention a property deal apparently gone wrong between Kane and the circus strongman played by Jonathan Nation–seems important to understanding the twist at the end of the film. I won’t spoil that twist, of course. I’m not sure I could ruin it if I wanted to. I didn’t completely understand it. The script overall seems to underestimate its audience with regard to the protagonists and overestimate it with regard to Kane’s story.
Aside from exposition, the backstories of the group seem to be my primary problem with this film. I’m left wondering why we needed to know about things like Big Ed’s heart condition (and why a man with a heart condition that requires medication would ever go to an obvious jump scare-prone haunted attraction in the first place). Although it is important to create audience empathy for characters by ensuring that they are not one-dimensional, things like Ed’s heart condition, Roxy’s scream queen career, Scott’s drug problem, and more, are biographical tidbits that never truly seem to lead anywhere. The viewer expects these issues to become part of each character’s story arc. They never do.
Overall, I did enjoy watching this film. The director and the actors know what they’re doing. The stand-out actor for me was Lawrence. He came across as more believable in the Billy “horror nerd” role than Monte’s more obnoxious Big Ed character. Although the dialogue can get a bit stilted and the story suffers from some basic exposition problems, the writing is decently paced and plotted. If you’re a fan of haunted attractions or even a fan of films like House on Haunted Hill and Saw, you will most likely enjoy Circus Kane.
Circus Kane is available on video-on-demand now and will be available on DVD October 10, 2017.