Written for RAF News November 2020
Two women working a night shift at a deathly quiet petrol station become the unwitting participants of a gruesome dark-web gameshow.
The Ringmaster opens with a warning: a riff on the original Frankenstein, but with the burlesque dialled up, as a stout bow-tied host emerges from behind red curtains, speaking through a face of make-up, telling us to proceed with caution.
Out of the gate it appears derivative but with a playful spin. It goes further to tell us the deeper themes of morbid curiosity and boundaries of entertainment, needless perhaps, but a sign that it holds itself with high regard for a ‘torture porn’ film.
Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) arrives for her last shift to find directionless employee Belinda (Karin Michelsen) bored, spending most of her time on the phone to her boyfriend Kenny. This is hardly her fault as customers are few and far between in this desolate location (Denmark close to the German Border) and the people that do drift in appear rather unhinged – including Kenny.
The film cuts between strange occurrences in the gas station, to Agnes in the near future, tied to a chair in a basement: the star of a cramped underground circus. Jumping between these two timelines makes us certain that the paranoia felt by Agnes earlier in the night is most definitely warranted.
Their abduction becomes inevitable as the night goes on and outside threats resurface. Meanwhile we are introduced to the host of this perverse game, a sadistic clown with a taste for the theatrical, talking with proper enunciation, projecting to an unseen audience. Watching through cameras, they send instructions as to how this Ringmaster should torture his subjects.
Exploring the sadistic nature of human beings, evidenced by a painting of a Roman gladiator in the bunker, this isn’t a particularly new idea but it has fun with its style of presentation and provocation, especially through the Ringmaster himself. Like a Rob Zombie character dropped into the Hostel universe, Damon Younger has a lot of fun with this performance.
Including some low-fi gore involving staples, and some obligatory exploitation involving piercings, Bergfeld and Michelson commit to showing realistic levels of agony.
Impressively both locations are used to bring out different kinds of horror – from the claustrophobic intensity of the circus, to the cold isolation of the petrol station, which keeps the film varied from scene to scene. But by jumping ahead and rushing to the showcase, it ultimately steals tension from the final act and prevents a grand reveal, which it feels like it deserves.