If you’re looking for a straight-up gorefest this winter, look no further.
The Ringmaster – a Danish film released in 2018 as Finale, now making its way to British audiences – is a small horror film that plays on the torture porn subgenere with broad success. It’s low-budget and at times toys with B-movie concepts – there’s mysterious flickering lights, a late-night gas station setting and a dark ending – and as a switch-your-brain off horror, certainly fits the bill.
Set in sleepy Denmark on the night of a big sports final, The Ringmaster follows psychology student and part-time gas station attendant Agnes (Anne Bergfield) as – on her last shift before quitting, typically – a series of unsettling customers set the stage for her abduction and subsequent torture at the hands of The Ringmaster (Damon Younger), a depraved, clown-like showman who broadcasts the brutality for thousands to watch.
The immediate comparison that will spring to mind is last year’s Joker – a vicious criminal dressed as a jester spreading chaos – but despite an aesthetic similarity, they’re very different experiences. While Joker tries – albeit clumsily – to make a comment about society and mental health, The Ringmaster opts instead to ditch the message and go for straight-up savagery.
And broadly speaking, it’s successful in doing so: when the plot takes a back seat and director Søren Juul Petersen lets the blood spill, it’s immensely unsettling, at times going so far as to border on the line of good taste. Much could be said about the film’s attitude towards women: the protagonist Agnes is very much a stereotypical ‘scream queen’, with her first shown applying makeup. The violence against women reaches depravity at times, justified by Petersen as an over-the-top indictment of real-life violence. Yes, somewhere in here the’s some commentary about how real-life violence spreads like a plague on the internet, and how depraved the dark corner of society can be, but the film doesn’t do enough to condemn the borderline-perverse violence that occasionally takes place.
Perhaps one of The Ringmaster‘s most unsettling elements is how the plot is structured. It opens with a warning about the wickedness that’s about to occur – which brilliantly sets an uncomfortable tone – but is perhaps a little slow to get to the action. Much of the script (penned by Petersen and Carsten Juul Bladt) flits between Agnes’ captivity at the hands of the Ringmaster and flashbacks to her final shift at the gas station, which would work if each element was as interesting as the other. Unfortunately, the gas station sequences often feel melodramatic: for every interesting scene involving blood-stained walls or creepy customers, there’s one involving Agnes’ colleague Belinda, or her staunchly repugnant partner Kenny. The film may have worked better as a From Dusk till Dawn-esque film-of-two-halves, as the transition back to workplace melodrama always feels disappointing.
That said, when it comes down to the action, it’s hard not to get absorbed by The Ringmaster. As an antagonist, he’s intensely freaky – from his ghoulish appearance to his sudden outbursts of fury – and it’s an entrancing performance from Damon Younger, who truly steals every scene he’s in. It’s aided by really convincing visual effects – there’s not a drop of CGI blood to be seen, and the gore is really well done – which helps make it such depraved experience when it succeeds.
The Ringmaster, despite its potentially troublesome gender politics, is a genuinely surprising horror that injects colour and spark into the torture porn subgenre, even if it doesn’t always click. Yes, there are scenes that feel unnecessary, and characters that you just wish would shut up, but when the blood starts flowing, it leaves you wanting more. A visceral and intriguing nightmare that slowly unravels, it’s got something to say about online access to real-life violence, although it perhaps feels a little antiquated at times.