While I couldn’t quite bring myself to give Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus a spot in the top ten films of 2011, it was a very near thing, and I ended up giving it its own category as “The Damndest Film I Saw All Year.” It was certainly that. Calling this complex and disturbing work a horror film doesn’t do it service—at the very least it’s art-house horror—but that’s as near as you’re likely to get to pinning it down.
As I wrote at the time, “It is neither practical, nor particularly advisable, to try to offer a detailed plot synopsis of The Last Circus. It starts during the Spanish Civil War—in fact, like many Spanish films, the war and the Franco regime hangs over it heavily in both a literal and metaphorical manner. A circus troupe find themselves—well, once they dispense with the bearded lady—dragooned into fighting against Franco. This includes ‘happy’ clown Andrés (Enrique Villen)—who at the time of his conscription is in drag to boot. He wants to change clothes, but is told, ‘A clown with a machete? You’ll scare the shit out of them.’ That proves more or less true, and Andrés manages to slash his way through a whole regiment before being caught and imprisoned. This, however, is merely the overture since the bulk of the film concerns his son, Javier (Carlos Areces), who years later becomes a ‘sad’ clown in a rundown circus where he draws laughs by being brutalized by ‘happy’ clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio also brutalizes his wife, the aerialist Natalia (Carolina Bang, whose name appears to actually be just that), with whom, of course, Javier falls in love. As a set-up, it’s as old as the hills—or at the least as old as a Tod Browning picture—but, oh my, the blood-drenched lengths to which it goes are hard to overstate.”
That summary doesn’t do service to the film’s innate and troubling strangeness. Maybe the easiest thing to say is that if you’ve ever wanted to see a demented machine-gun-wielding clown (who has permanently made himself up with the aid of acid and a hot iron) in an ice-cream van chase after his trapeze-artist lady love, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. If Tod Browning, Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Pedro Almodóvar and Guillermo del Toro all dropped acid and compared notes, this film might be the result. Roll that around in your mind for a while—if you dare.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Last Circus on Thursday, March 8, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.