Cinematic Tour: Alleluia! The Devil's Carnival Part 2

Chris Jordan recently attended a New York screening. Check out his review right here.

"I'm so horny!!! No pun intended!"
Several years ago, director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer Terrance Zdunich broke up with Hollywood. They had just poured their creative energies into their years-in-development rock musical Repo! The Genetic Opera, only to have it casually abandoned by a studio that did not understand it. They were left deeply embittered. But then, despite no studio support, the film found its audience anyway; organically, via word of mouth. Their disenchantment turned to optimism as they realized that they didn't need a studio: by embracing and interacting with their film's passionate fandom, they could make movies completely independently, funded by the support of a like-minded community. Bousman and Zdunich began developing another rock-opera using this model... but their experiment in indie filmmaking soon grew into something even more experimental and ambitious. In 2012, they unleashed The Devil's Carnival: a 55-minute pilot episode for an ongoing, theatrically-released rock-musical series. 

Over multiple films, The Devil's Carnival would chronicle a war between Heaven and Hell, with Hell cast as the good guys: anarchic antiheroes rebelling against a cruel and megalomaniacal God. Three years later (totally independent filmmaking takes time) part 2 is finally here... and it is more than worth the wait. Again the project has grown in ambition and scope: this time it isn't an hour-long episode, but a 100-minute feature that is easily the best and most mature of their three collaborations. It certainly continues the larger ongoing series, but it also stands as a very good film in its own right. With a strongly-written story, thoughtful attention to its main characters, fantastic art design, and a wonderfully eclectic approach to its music, Alleluia! more than lives up to the potential developed by its predecessor.

The first Devil's Carnival is, without any doubt, a pilot episode, and it works best when viewed as such. It's a really good pilot episode, but it needs to be viewed with that storytelling intention in mind: it doesn't want to be a stand-alone movie like Repo!, and if you try to watch it like one, it is somewhat disorienting. The short feature does have some self-contained plot threads, but its primary goal is to launch a series; to introduce viewers to the characters and their world, and to set up the conflict between Hell and Heaven which will form the ongoing story arc. Alleluia!, on the other hand, makes full use of its running time to focus as much on its own self-contained plot as the larger serialized one. The result shifts the series from a TV-show storytelling model to a film-franchise model, and is much more narratively satisfying.

We get two stories this time around, running in parallel. In the present, Lucifer (writer Terrance Zdunich) strikes the first blows of his war against God (Paul Sorvino), and readies his hellish band of antiheroes. Simultaneously in flashback, we see firsthand the cruel, corrupt fascism beneath the shiny facade of Heaven, through the tragic backstory of one of Hell's most haunting inhabitants, The Painted Doll (singer/violinist Emilie Autumn). While Episode 1 thoroughly developed the surreal gothic carnival that is Hell, Alleluia! equally develops Heaven: a fascinating, multi-layered place of opulent 1920s glamor and corrupt Orwellian backstabbing. It also expands the series' already-impressive ensemble cast into a nearly-ridiculous who's-who of horror actors, Broadway stars, and rock musicians. Lucifer's macabre cast includes, in addition to Autumn's Painted Doll, Marc Senter (Starry Eyes), Bill Moseley (The Devil's Rejects), Ogre from Skinny Puppy, and Dayton Callie (Sons of Anarchy). God has gathered an equally impressive ensemble including Adam Pascal (Rent), Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), Barry Bostwick (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), David Hasselhoff, Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self-Indulgence, Chantal Claret from Morningwood, and Tech N9ne.

"Wanna know how I got these scars?"
While the scope of The Devil's Carnival is greatly expanded in Alleluia!, the real power of this film comes unexpectedly from how much of the story is essentially a very intimate character drama. Amid all the rumblings of war, the heart and soul of the film is basically the dynamics between three pairs of people: principally The Painted Doll and God's general, The Agent (Adam Pascal), but also The Agent and God, and Lucifer and his general (Dayton Callie). The plot is anchored in the complex relationships between these characters, and despite the mythical scope of the larger action, these five leads make it all feel quite human, with very personal stakes. This is especially true in the flashback story, as one woman's experience serves as a microcosm of the whole Heaven vs Hell dynamic.

Emilie Autumn carries the emotional weight of this whole plotline, in what amounts to her first acting performance; she played The Doll in the first Devil's Carnival, of course, but this is the first time she's had any substantial amount of non-musical dialogue. And she is fantastic, stealing the show from almost everyone; this is one hell of a dramatic debut. Adam Pascal, who originated the role of Roger in Rent, is equally strong opposite her as The Agent. Naturally he's great, with the prestige that he brings to the role; it's a further testament to Autumn's performance that they're on such equal footing as actors. Their powerful singing voices also give the film two of its best songs. Terrance Zdunich and Paul Sorvino are excellent as Lucifer and God, both bringing different brands of gravitas to their mythically huge characters. Sorvino plays God like an early-20th-century gangster; a metaphysical Vito Corleone. And Zdunich is the one guy that no one could possibly steal the show from: his magnetic presence and resonant baritone voice make him the ultimate film portrayal of the Devil.

While the other members of the ensemble have smaller parts, they serve a very important purpose: making this large, complicated world feel real by showing how it works as only a large slice of the population can. Zdunich has said that he hates the overuse of exposition in musicals, where the words take front and center, and he wanted to minimize that as much as possible in Alleluia! by crafting a world through subtexts of characters' actions, rather than things they directly say or sing. The songs, for the most part, don't directly further the story so much as they give depth to the world and its inhabitants. By observing the cogs in the machine, we gradually get a sense of how the whole machine works.

However, while the main leads are all well-balanced in the acting and singing departments, there is a bit of unevenness in the supporting cast. Some people were clearly chosen either because of their talents as musicians or their talents as actors, and they aren't quite as strong in the other department. Jimmy Urine and Chantal Claret, for example, are here because of their very particular vocal styles – which they bring to a solid duet number – but their acting leaves something to be desired. Their performances are so over-the-top-slapstick that they clash with the film's otherwise very consistent tone. Barry Bostwick has the opposite issue: he is quite good in a camp-villain role that goes just the right amount of over-the-top, but gets stuck with a weaker song that doesn't compliment his more limited vocal range. But these are ultimately minor complaints; for the most part the supporting players are quite good, and their smaller roles make strong use of their particular talents. In the cases of Ted Neeley and David Hasselhoff, they also get chances to play off of their star images, and they both have a lot of fun with it. Hasselhoff in particular gives an effortlessly natural, self-aware performance as a scenery-chewing diva; heavenly indeed.

The music in Alleluia! is great, and marks a bold break from the previous Devil's Carnival film. While there are still a few numbers in the rock, goth, and industrial veins that Repo! and TDC Episode 1 would lead you to expect, most of the music this time is wildly different: very eclectic, and heavily vintage-inspired. Just as Heaven is decorated in Roaring-Twenties decadence and 1930s big-band night-club styles, the music there draws from theater's past. There are swing songs, Cole Porter-style numbers, an homage to Cabaret, and more. Stylistically it still maintains its gothic rock opera personality, but so thoroughly mixing it up musically is a bold and welcome choice. The series is sure enough of its identity that it can comfortably play with form and genre in creative ways that benefit the story; it doesn't feel the need to stick to the obvious styles just to show its edge. The music is rich and multi-layered enough that multiple viewings (or multiple listenings to the soundtrack CD) are somewhere between helpful and necessary to unpack everything that Zdunich has loaded in. I can't think of a higher compliment to the music than that; he chose complicated artistry over pop accessibility, and created something worth coming back to and analyzing.

"Like a poor man's Liberace......."
Just like with Repo! and the first Devil's Carnival, Bousman and Zdunich are releasing Alleluia! The Devil's Carnival Part 2 in a touring road-show theatrical run. The two of them are presenting the film live every night, and hosting Q&A sessions and meet and greets. Various other cast members are joining them at most shows and likewise meeting the fans, and they are also finding local carnival-related opening acts – anything from burlesque dancers to contortionists to magicians – for each night. In the style pioneered by Rocky Horror, costumes are encouraged, and so is audience participation with the film (one number in the movie actually brings up the old sing-along bouncing ball on-screen). It's all part of their staunchly-indie philosophy of engaging with the fans and creating a sense of community, and it makes for a very memorable moviegoing experience that feels a little more like live theater. Which is appropriate, because the next project for several of these people will be actual live theater: Emilie Autumn and Darren Lynn Bousman are working together on a stage production of Autumn's rock opera The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. It developed as a merging of her novel of the same name and its companion concept album Fight Like A Girl, and it will star several Devil's Carnival cast members including herself, Ted Neeley, Adam Pascal, and Marc Senter. It seems that this team is nowhere near done experimenting with the modern rock musical; if anything, they're accelerating towards even cooler things. And then of course there's The Devil's Carnival Episode 3, which likewise is on the horizon assuming this tour does as well as expected.

When the touring theatrical screening makes its way to your city, Alleluia! The Devil's Carnival is definitely one to go see. While the first installment had its flaws, and worked best when viewed as a pilot episode, this sequel fully realizes all the potential for which its predecessor laid the groundwork. It's the strongest and most mature of Zdunich and Bousman's three rock opera collaborations, and the world they have created with this series is wonderfully unique. As the carnival grows, hopefully we'll get episode 3 a bit sooner than three years from now; it's definitely a world I would like to return to, the sooner the better.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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