Writer/director Alex de la Iglesia is way over-the-top in this under-the-big-top tale, yet winds up singing the same old circus tune about the leading lady who can’t quit her brutish strongman lover, and the melancholy clown with the painted teardrop who pines for her in vain. In this iteration, everyone’s a clown and the gruesome disfigurements don’t come off with cold-cream, but the rise in temperature has barely changed things. Iglesia revels in the visual possibilities, taking advantage of miscues, misunderstandings & misadventures to prop up extravagant doses of gore, violence & sex, but to diminishing effect. Usually, there’s little point in bemoaning the film that didn’t get made, but BALLAD OF THE SAD TRUMPET is something of an exception to the rule since Iglesia did make that other pic . . . it’s the prologue to this film! And its something of a triumph . . . for a couple or three reels. Set three & a half decades back from the main story, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, we open as a show is in progress. The clowns are on, the children are in hysterics, then the war marches down the street in all its insanity. The partisans forcibly recruit the circus staff (clowns, animal handlers, animals!, acrobats, the works) to beef up numbers for a suicide stand against a surge of fascist forces. We meet the son of the top clown, a chipper, bespectacled lad who bears little resemblance to the miscast lardass the film has him grow into. And while the frenetic style & Fellini-esque tone threatens to go off-balance, Iglesia is still able to make sense of things. Stunningly so. Then we leap ahead to the '70s, and find we’re working without a net . . . splat!
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The ultimate in clown masochism & revenge remains Victor Seatrom’s/Sjöström’s magnificent Lon Chaney starrer HE WHO GETS SLAPPED/’24 - the first release from the newly combined M-G-M.