One of the best things about the horror genre is its ability to divide audiences and create strong, passionate reactions. We may split on a comedy, sure, because we find different things funny, but chances are we won’t carry that experience with us much past when the end credits roll. Horror is different. Love it or hate it, it sticks with us, and when we see a movie that really speaks to us we connect with it in such way so as to believe the filmmaker has made something that’s just for us.
Few filmmakers embody this ideal more than Darren Lynn Bousman: while his recent output of films might not be for everyone, for the people they are for they are really for. After finding success within the studio system thanks to his trilogy of Saw films and his criminally underrated remake of Mother’s Day, Bousman has spent the last several years redefining his career as one of the true independents of horror. He makes exactly the movies he wants to make in exactly the way he wants to make them, then tours them around the country four-walling theaters and building one of the most devoted cult fanbases in the genre today, first with Repo! The Genetic Opera, then The Devil’s Carnival and now its feature-length sequel Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival. It is as uncompromising and singular a vision as horror fans can hope for.
And yet, it’s not exactly a horror film. Yes, it takes place in Hell and yes there are oddities and elaborate creature makeups courtesy of Vincent Guastini, but Alleluia is more rock opera than anything else. The sequel to Bousman’s 2012 short The Devil’s Carnival, Alleluia opens with a brief “previously on” recap before catching up quickly with Ms. Merrywood (Briana Evigan), now a prisoner of the Devil. The majority of the film takes place in Heaven as a crop of new applicants find their way in while God (Paul Sorvino) tasks his most devoted servant, called The Agent (Adam Pascal), with seducing one of the new recruits. All of this takes place against the impending war between Heaven and Hell being plotted by Lucifer (writer Terrance Zdunich, reprising his role).
Clearly the middle chapter of what is designed as a trilogy, Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival is a total trip — an assault on the senses that’s part psychedelia, part funhouse freakshow and part old Hollywood glamour. It’s Busby Berkely on acid. Bousman is a kitchen sink visual stylist, meaning every inch of every frame of Alleluia’s is exploding with detail and design, bathed in the deep blues and reds of classic Argento for a look that’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes nightmarish, often both. It is so fully realized, so original and so true to itself that it’s impossible not to admire it. While Zdunich’s screenplay isn’t always narratively coherent, that hardly matters; the story works in broad strokes, as only a tale of war between Heaven and Hell can.
While the movie is truly an ensemble piece — or perhaps “company” is a more appropriate word (which includes Bill Mosely, Dayton Callie, Kristina Klebe and rapper Tech N9ne) — the standout is Pascal, whose Agent gives Alleluia not just its soul but its big, beating heart. Also new to the cast this time out are Barry Bostwick, David Hasselhoff and Ted Neely; aside from one throwaway Jesus Christ Superstar reference in the dialogue, none of the actors are cast for any sort of “camp” value. So many filmmakers these days cast Hasselhoff as a short cut to putting ironic air quotes around their film, but there’s nothing ironic about Hasselhoff’s performance or Alleluia. There is cynicism to the film — particularly what it has to say about the politics and practices of the “good” people in Heaven versus the more blatant and honest evil of Hell — but there is no irony. Every single person involved commits completely to the insane vision, and that’s what gives the film its power. Had Bousman and company winked at the audience for 90 minutes, it would be obvious that they were trying to make a campy, self-aware cult movie. Audiences sniff out frauds like that and reject them. Alleluia is totally sincere — frenzied and hallucinatory, but totally sincere. This one has cult classic written all over it.
So many contemporary horror movies are about executing a premise. What Bousman is doing in Alleluia is more about creative expression — eliciting an emotional response from the audience with the way the movie looks and feels. It’s no mistake that Heaven is designed as an empty theater, with God as the tortured Creator essentially “putting on a show.” That desire — to put on a good show, from its conception to its construction to its roadshow exhibition — is what separates a film like Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival from studio product and makes it something truly special. You’re bound to have a strong reaction to it one way or another, as it’s a movie that leaves little room from middle ground. But love it or hate it, there’s nothing else like it.
Movie Score: 3/5