Saw meets The Greatest Showman while also meeting My Little Eye. In Søren Juul Petersen’s feature debut horror The Ringmaster starts off so promisingly before petering out by the films end.
Two young women Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) and Belinda (Karin Michelsen) working the night shift at a secluded gas station unwittingly become the stars of a terrifying show streamed live on the dark web. Held captive by a sadistic ringmaster and his cohorts. Their survival instincts are stretched to the limit as they are forced to play a game of life and death. All while an unseen audience decide their fate.
Where The Ringmaster fares best is in the first half when we follow the creepy thriller aspect of the story of who is tormenting these two women and how did they end up where they did. The tension continually mounting in the before scenes as more and more events keep occurring to freak them out. These work so well because they allow for breathers from the torture we are watching. There is only so long that you can take watching torture sequence after torture sequence and to wisely cut away give the film a chance.
This opening half allows the film to flow easily. Even if we know where they end up, Søren Juul Petersen manages to grip you with a sense of dread. The two men who come late at night to the gas station genuinely give you the creeps. Anyone who has worked in a similar role or in a late evening customer service position will have had customers like these two and they do unsettle.
This is also where the film falters as when we have run out of backstory in the second half. It is just nonstop unrelenting horror. The problem is, the horror isn’t strong enough beyond the gore to warrant it. They also decide to break away from our “main event” far too early and lead us down long chase sequences as our leads try to escape. By leaving what was working so early the film falls flat right when it should be amping up the audience. The character of the Ringmaster really works well in the time we see him and he should have been more integral until the very last scenes.
The tension from the first half perhaps could have extended throughout if we were given a more conventional narrative to go by. Going back and forth between timelines in the story eventually hurts the third acts escape sequences. This then allows for the prolonged middle section of standard torture scenes to work smoother before we reach the finale act. While this is an adaption from a novel, it feels like this has been two films merged into one. The first and final act appear to be one solid film. Then we have the torture scenes which while perfectly acceptable in a horror movie, feel out of place here and the shift in tone of the film is far too notable.
The idea that Agnes and Belinda’s own security blanket of surveillance is their downfall. Is a chilling premise on its own. They feel secure because cameras are recording them to help them see all around them. The betrayal of such technology echoes a number of horrors that have utilised the dark web and it is still a fresh enough trope that it successfully works. The fact that unknown sources can control their security is frightening and something that should have been touched upon far more than it was as that was the interesting point of The Ringmaster.
The concept of everyone is a commodity to those with enough privileges in life intrigues. But we don’t go there and that is a shame. Rather than go so long in the torture scenes. Perhaps that should have been drastically shortened to tell the better tale? They even tease the issue of the continued rise in extreme content online and how accessible it is becoming to the masses. By bringing the world such real life graphic events we are becoming neutered. But this like the other premise is snuffed out for some extra blood and gore. Such a missed opportunity.
For the film to divert and go the direction it does cheapens the work put in by the visuals and by the cast. Even if Damon Younger as the Ringmaster is excellently creepy in the role. The film works as well as it does thanks to our two leads. With both commanding the screen and playing their antagonistic characters excellently. The film lives in build-up and you buy in pretty quickly into the premise with these two actresses. So when the emotional beats and change in tone of the film come it is their performances which hold it all together.
The Ringmaster is a film of two halves and while the first half has you at the edge of your seat. The second half stumbles. It is a disappointing shame, but still very much worth your time. If only it had stuck with the straighter narrative. Also if it was bold enough to ignore the temptation of gore and make fulfill the points it was teasing fuller.
The Ringmaster will be available on DVD & Digital Download from 30th November & In UK Cinemas from 2nd December
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