In Green Town, Illinois, the twelve year-old boys Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are neighbors and best friends. Will's father Charles Halloway is an old man and the local librarian while Jim and his mother wait for the return of the return of their father and husband that will never occur. The boys know everyone in town, including their school teacher Miss Foley that misses her beauty and youth; the lonely barber Mr. Crosetti that has no girlfriend or wife; the greedy owner of a cigar store Mr. Tetley that is obsessed with money; and the bartender Ed that has severed arm and leg and dreams on being a football hero. One day, Jim buys a lightning rod from the salesman Tom Fury that tells that a storm is coming. During the night, the boys overhear a mysterious train and they run through the woods to see the arrival but they do not see a living soul. However, they find the Mr. Dark's Pandemonium Carnival ready to be enjoyed and they snoop around. Soon they realize that frustrated and ... Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
There seems to be something about small Midwestern towns that sticks with the writers who have grown up in them, a sense of childhood idealism now lost. Ray Bradbury had it. So did Rod Serling and Harper Lee. (Okay, I'm defining the Midwest in such a way as to include New York state and the South. If there's "poetic license" and "artistic license," we can have "geographic license" too.) I don't know how Hemingway didn't "get it."
This movie does a much better job of translating Bradbuy's often lyrical but still commercial prose into a visual medium. The village atmosphere is effectively evoked. The script tells us that everyone knows everyone else. And two you boys are the kind of close friends you can only have when you're a twelve-year-old kid, secretly crawling across tree branches and roofs into each others' bedrooms and worrying that one is trying to "ditch" the other. These boys aren't interested in girls -- yet. Freud called this developmental phase "latent homosexuality" but he probably had it wrong. What we see is not inversion but a budding social solidarity, a loyalty to a still-small group. If these kids are gay then so is the U. S. Marine Corps.
Anyway, the acting by everyone concerned is splendid, with the possible exception of Jonathan Price. It isn't his performance at fault. It's just that I couldn't buy him as the demonic carnival owner. Maybe it was his hair do, which was like unto that of a Beverly Hills doctor specializing in diseases of the rich.
The photography, lighting, and art direction couldn't be improved upon. There are a couple of shots of Vermont but most of the scenes are indoors or on a Small Town, USA, set on the back lot. That's okay. Sets can be stylized to a degree that real small towns can't, and that's what's required in a spooky fantasy like this. The smallest details seem apt. Note, for instance, the exceedingly drab wallpaper in Miss Farley's house. Ugh. It's the kind that Oscar Wilde must have had to cope with when he cracked from his deathbed, "Either this wallpaper has to go or I do." And -- whew -- is Pamela Grier a knockout. And Jason Robards has one of his best roles. What a magnificent smoke-and-vodka cured voice he has. In profile his features seem so flat as to have been painted on the front of his face, but when we get a good look at them they're extremely expressive. He looks and acts like a guilt-ridden father, frightened of death.
I don't know why it doesn't all quite come together. The story seems less focused than it might be. Oh, we know the carnival is evil, right from the beginning, that spectacular shot of the locomotive from hell pounding camerawards. But then what? Episodes that are hard to fit into the main plot. A big guy gets on a merry-go-round which spins him backwards and turns him into a child who then pretends to be Miss Farley's nephew, Robert, and she goes along with it. Why? Miss Farley doesn't seem especially fond of him. Is this her secret dream which the carnival is bringing to realization? Maybe, but later while looking in the mirror, Miss Farley turns into a lovely young woman and then promptly goes blind. How many secret dreams does this babe have? And why is she (and the others) punished for the dissatisfaction she feels? What do the evildoers at the carnival GET out of it?
I've used Miss Farley as an example but there are others. Too many. The plot seems loose limbed and gangles a little. What does Jonathan Price care whether he catches the two boys or not? Nobody's going to believe their story. And the multitude of tarantulas is a kind of cheap scare for a movie full of wistful memories like this. Especially when the kids wake up from the dream and thrust their screaming faces into the lens.
It's still a good movie for the reasons I've given, and the characterizations are good too. I wound up feeling very sorry for Jason Robards who is facing the prospect of being cured of life, which Kierkegaard called "the disease of eternity." At the same time I do wish they hadn't impaled Pam Grier on that shard of glass or whatever it was. I wonder how Val Lewton would have handled all this.
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