Directed By: Robert Kaylor
Starring: Gary Busey, Jodie Foster, Robbie Robertson
Tag line: "Where love is just another sucker's game"
Trivia: In Brazil this film was released as DEATH CIRCUS
Patch (Robbie Robertson) and Frankie (Gary Busey) have a good thing going. Workers with a traveling carnival, they operate the dunk cage, with Patch collecting the money out front while Frankie, wearing clown make-up, shouts insults from inside the cage, daring players to try and knock him into the water. Then, one night, 18-year-old Donna (Jodie Foster) walks into their lives. Tired of her small town and sick of her domineering boyfriend (Craig Wasson), she decides to tag along with the carnival as it tours the south. Frankie, who’s starting to fall for Donna, is thrilled to have her around, while Patch is concerned that she might get in the way. To prove her worth, Donna takes a job as an exotic dancer in the “Cooch show” (which ends badly), then helps out Gerta (Meg Foster) in one of the carnival’s many game booths. But when a crime boss named Marvin Dill (Bill McKinney) tries to extort money from Patch and the carnival’s manager, Heavy St. John (Kenneth McMillan), it threatens to put their entire operation out of business.
Directed by Robbie Kaylor, 1980’s Carny works well as a drama, showing how Donna’s arrival has put a strain on Patch and Frankie’s decade-long partnership; and features some good performances from its main cast, especially Busey as the kind, somewhat naïve Frankie, who transforms into the biggest jerk around when he climbs into the dunk cage (the abuse he heaps on players occasionally hits a nerve, causing some of them to try to attack him). Among the supporting players, Elisha Cook Jr is frantic and hilarious as the unhinged carny worker known as “On-Your-Mark”, who has spent 50 years of his life on the road, while Kenneth McMillan’s Heavy St. John is a no-nonsense supervisor who spends most of his time bribing local officials and fighting with bureaucrats who attempt to shut them down (every stop on their tour presents a new challenge, and a new group of politicians looking for a handout).
But where Carny truly excels is in its depiction of carnival life, most of which involves trying to bilk patrons out of their hard-earned cash; one of the first things Gerta teaches Donna is how to flirt with the customers to ensure they keep on playing. And with actual circus performers like The Alligator Man (Emmet Bejano) and the Monkey Woman (Percilla Bejano) joining in on the fun, Carny has a bit in common with Tod Browning’s Freaks, including how life on the road forges a bond between the carny folk, who sometimes go to great lengths to protect their own.
A raw, sometimes edgy portrayal of what goes on behind the scenes of a traveling carnival, Carny shines a light on a way of life that, even in 1980, was beginning to fade away.