Andre (an excellent Andrew Prine), a psychopathic momma’s boy living in the middle of the Nevada desert, surrounded by the rotting remnants of his father’s fledgling circus operation. When a trio of showgirls driving from Los Angeles to a Las Vegas gig suffers a breakdown, Andre is all too eager to offer a helping hand. While exploring his compound, the girls stumble onto the titular barn, which houses five or six female prisoners clad in rags, nearly catatonic and chained like animals to posts in the ground. “We’re his toys, his pets, his animals,” moans one of the captives; the three new arrivals soon join her as part of Andre’s human circus.
As the girls’ agent, Derek (Chuck Niles), searches for his clients, “ringmaster” Andre finds myriad ways to abuse his captives. In one sequence, the women encircle a tower while Andre cracks a whip over their bodies, later bringing them a pail of slop while calling out “dinner time!” When one woman nearly escapes, she’s lashed to near death by Andre; the next day, he takes an “untrainable animal” (i.e., a girl who fails to obey his orders) outside, where he paints her clothes with calves’ blood before releasing her into the desert. The girl escapes Andre’s pet cougar only to be mutilated by an unseen, subhuman thing that lives in a shack on the border of the property. A more psychological dimension is introduced as Andre fixates on showgirl Simone (Manuela Thiess), who he confuses with his long-lost mother (“Father had an accident. I do everything now!”). In the gory finale, Simone’s escape attempt is interrupted by Andre’s father (Gerald Cormier, who also produced), a homicidal freak hideously mutated by H-Bomb radiation who attacks Andre’s menagerie in an orgy of screams and bloodletting.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Alan Rudolph was the guest at a festive preview event in Dallas in 1988, centered around The Moderns, his then-current arty drama about an expatriate American artist at large in 1920s Paris, which was making its Southwestern debut. The conversation was going fine, retracing a path back through the bizarre neo-noir Trouble in Mind (1985), the cattle-mutilation shocker Endangered Species (1982) and the stalker melodrama Remember My Name (1978)—until someone, in all due film-scholar earnestness, brought up Barn of the Naked Dead.
“What?!” replied Rudolph. “Where’d you come up with a title like that?”
“Um, well,” someone answered, “Andrew Prine mentioned working with you on it, kind of making things up as it went along. And Robert Altman has cited it as one of the pictures that had brought you to his attention. Maybe you’d remember it under another title, like Nightmare Circus? One of your earlier pictures, and, uh..I don’t make pictures,’ ” interjected Rudolph. “I make films. And I certainly never would have had anything to do with any nonsense called Nightmare Circus, much less any Barn of the Naked Dead.”
Critically acclaimed director Alan Rudolph doesn’t list it among his credits, even though it was his first-ever directorial effort. “He denies doing it.” notes Prine with a chuckle. “He used to tell people it was his father.” Reminded that producer, Gerald Cormier, is given official credit as director. Prine responds, “Yes. and that’s ridiculous. He didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.
That’s why we had no director, and that’s why I took over the first day and ran it until they brought in Alan, who was a young apprentice director, and he got it finished.’’ At the time, he adds, no one had something special. “In a picture like that, nobody’s special. It’s so bad that you couldn’t even tell I was a good actor.” He laughs again. “Or that he was a good director. Some bodies you can’t pump breath into, and that was one of ’em. I was an unhappy camper on it: all I wanted to do was get it over with. It doesn’t matter, and this shouldn’t be the longest story in the world, but I talked myself into It because they paid me an awful lot of money. They paid me the whole budget to do it. I was seduced by greed.
“Alan Rudolph was very much into avant-garde improvisation, it seemed,” Prine explains, “and so we didn’t have a script as much as we had a scenario, with a whole lot of business made up as we got to going along, there. I didn’t have much in the way of a character, so I just sort of built what’s-his name-André-on quirks and eccentric mannerisms. It was all pretty spontaneous.”
The photography, credited to the likely pseudonymous E. Lynn, is murky, but the unattributed editing is brisk and efficient. Technically, Barn of the Naked Dead is a proxy title, concocted for a reissue in 1975-76; the picture originally carried the Nightmare Circus name and has been issued on video as Terror Circus.
Terror Circus is one of Alan Rudolph’s first feature films, but Gerald Cormier is sometimes credited as director. Gerald, who co-authored the script, had a very low budget and was attempting to direct it himself. It wasn’t that he couldn’t direct, he was just in over his head-he was also the producer, the stuntman and played the monster! So our assistant director knew Alan, who had done a few things. Alan came in cold, took over the show and did one hell of a job. He was wonderful to work with.
The decapitation for that film was a horrific shot! Harry Thomas got me a picture of what a head would really look like if it was off-the bone structure, the whole thing. I created a headless dummy, and I put it up against a wagon wheel. I fixed the wheel so the spokes were missing and there was space underneath where a person’s body could be placed. I had one of the crew place his legs under there, then I pushed the piece right down over them and had his arms come out so you could see them moving. And I stayed just off camera with a plastic bottle filled with blood.
- Byrd Holland/Make Up Effects for “The Barn of the Naked Dead
Evil Eyes”, sung by Pamela Miller over the opening credits.
Alan Rudolph (under the pseudonym of Gerald Cormier)
Shirlee F. Jamail
Terror in the Desert: Dark Cinema of the American Southwest By Brad Sykes