The Ringmaster (2020)

 Søren Juul Petersen

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Certification: 18

Starring: Anne Bergfeld, Karin Michelsen, Damon Younger, Kristoffer Fabricius, Mads Koudal, Kim Sønderholm, Gustav Scavenius, Lars Knutzon

Opening on the sight of a stage, we see a painted man make his way into the frame. In a meta way, he presents what we're about to see with a "friendly little warning". Delivering a foreboding message that it shall shock and horrify the audience, it's a fun way to begin things, even if it promises more than what the film delivers.

Working the night shift at a secluded gas station, Agnes and Belinda (Anne Bergfeld and Karin Michelsen) find themselves experiencing strange incidents. Before they know it, the pair are held captive by a sadistic ringmaster (Damon Younger), and become the stars of a cruel show streamed live on the dark web.

With the help of co-writer Carsten Juul Bladt, director Søren Juul Petersen adapts Finale, the best-selling novel from Steen Langstrup. Whether it's from the original novel or a narrative trick included for the film, the story flits between the nightshift, and the workers being held captive. When such a story-telling trick is utilised, one tends to presume a twist is lurking beneath. There's no such justification for this choice, existing just to deflate the tension.

When it comes to the characters, we're given the bare minimum to understand them, but not much to care for them. Agnes is studying to be a psychologist, and just wants an escape to a new life with her boyfriend. Her co-worker, Belinda, is plagued by relationship troubles, and constantly defending her awful boyfriend. In spite of the decent performances, these characters come off just as bodies to be put through hell.

Putting them through this ordeal is the titular Ringmaster, as portrayed by Damon Younger. He's a figure that plays up to the crowd watching him, be they in-universe or to us flesh and blood viewers. He's full of groanworthy puns, and cannot contain his glee at his horrific actions. When it comes to these gruesome acts, the smaller stuff is more effect and relatable. A stapler and a badge pin work to great effect, as opposed to the more extravagant moments.

We keep seeing cameras scattered all throughout, watching our leads through both their mundane and nightmarish experiences. Such an inclusion promises a theme of how we're constantly being watched, often for the gratification of others, but it all feels like lip service. So little is done with the idea, and that criticism could also apply to the larger film. At best, this is a preferable version of Rob Zombie's 31, but that's damning with faint praise.

Available to rent on Digital Download from 30th November, and in UK Cinemas from 2nd December