The Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow started with a band, and that band started after a tragedy. In 1999, Matthew and Eric Broomfield lost their older brother Jason to suicide. Jason was an artist based in Philadelphia and New York, and the younger two brothers really looked up to him. So in honor of Jason, the two Temple University students decided to dedicate their lives to art. His legacy would live on through them.
They started a band later that year. A few years went by and the band briefly moved from Philadelphia to Ithaca, New York. It was in Ithaca that Eric met a sideshow performer named, appropriately, Angel. Meeting her changed his life, and Eric decided to start an event that would feature both the band and a sideshow. In spring of 2005, after having moved back to Philadelphia, the brothers held their first Carnivolution show at the open-air Ellen Powell Tiberino museum.
The original shows had a basic formula: one set from the band, a sideshow performance, and then a second set from the band. There was, of course, plenty of beer and occasionally you would smell, uh, other substances in the air. Having seen several shows between 2006 and 2007, I can tell you, it was a hell of a good time.
Though the Carnivolution shows would continue, the band wouldn’t. There was always a fluctuating number of musicians, but it averaged about six performers at a time. Not only was it difficult to pack away so many people and their instruments into a small bus, but the sideshow, which they’d been taking to the road as the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow, made more money. Which makes sense. There are more local bands than anyone can count. There are far fewer sideshow troupes. When one comes to town, it’s an attraction. Even better is that the Squidling Brothers are actually very, very good.
Eric’s stage persona is Jelly Boy The Clown, a twisted nightmare of a trickster with, as he says, “an upside-down frown turned upside-down.” A human blockhead. A sword swallower. The persona is always partly an act, but it’s also very much Eric. But you know the whole deal with masks and makeup — there’s always some sort of transformation going on. In Jelly Boy’s case, the transformation varies in degree depending on the setting or situation.
Matthew, having majored in filmmaking at Temple, decided early on to document the troupe’s shenanigans, and it’s a good thing, too. The films don’t quite get you a seat at the show, but they come pretty damn close.
Matthew has directed most of the films, and he also does the majority of the editing. That’s not to say that Eric doesn’t do a lot. He has produced, written, performed, and held a variety of other roles. But Eric is also the creative leader of the Squidlings sideshow and Carnivolution, making the majority of the creative decisions. So when it comes to the movies, it’s sometimes difficult to separate where one brother’s influence ends and the other begins. They’ve always been close, so there’s always going to be at least some synchronicity.
Their first film is a horror movie. THE UNHOLY SIDESHOW (2007) got… less than stellar reviews. It has a 2/10 score on IMDB with 46 votes. Oddly, though, the Amazon reviews are mostly positive. One Amazon reviewer wrote, “If the Stooges teamed with Benny Hill and Red Skelton to make a horror movie, this might be it.” So there you go.
Admittedly, the plot does get pretty confusing at times. It doesn’t help that this is an hour-long flick that’s supposed to be the first of several parts. The film ends in the middle of the story and promises to continue, though the sequel never came.
Still, the film is a lot of fun. There’s a ’50s horror movie feel to the thing, but with a modern gore aesthetic. You’ll get plenty of blood-n-guts with this one, which I guess is why some people might take the flick a bit more seriously than it probably was intended. I mean, there’s an other-the-top mad scientist character, complete with a wacky laboratory, that’s straight out of a William Castle film. How can you not have fun with that?
The sideshow stunts shown throughout the film are real, so there’s a kind of non-fiction element going on. There’s actually a performance in a small theater near the beginning of the film in which we get a version of a Carnivolution show, that’s very similar to what you would have seen at a show in 2006 or so.
Narrative coherence or not, the film is best when things get batshit surreal and you just groove to the insanity. There’s a scene near the middle of the film where the sideshow performers bring a bunch of their groupies over to their house, drug them, and dismember them in various creative ways. I’m pretty sure that I would not like to die during an extremely bad trip where someone slowly rips the meat out of my body and plays it like an instrument, though that might just be a personal preference.
Their next film, A CLOWN’S RECOVERY (2013), is Matthew Broomfield’s first documentary, and possibly his best. We open at a Carnivolution show and see Eric, fully transformed by evil-looking face paint into Jelly Boy the Clown, addressing the audience with his twisted sense of humor: “Don’t try this at home, ladies and gentlemen. Try it in school. Try it in a hospital.” After that, the film pretty much gets straight to its subject — On July 22 at around 4am, Eric was trapped in an apartment that caught on fire. He was at an old friend’s place, and in a panic, the friend fled the apartment. As soon as he realized that he left Eric in the apartment, he tried to get back in, but realized that he had locked himself out. All he could do was scream Eric’s name. It was bad luck on top of bad luck.
With the room he was staying in burning in all directions around him, Eric started to pass out. Convinced he was dying, he had what he thought were his final thoughts. He thought about his family, his friends, and things he had yet to experience. He was minutes, maybe even seconds from dying, but at the last minute a firefighter broke through and was able to get Eric out. At the hospital, a heavily burned Eric was put in a medically induced coma.
The film’s theme song, as it were, is “Everybody Dies” by Dr. Sick, a jazzy tune that humorously lists ways that people might meet their maker. It’s dark, it’s silly, it’s playful, and it nicely encapsulates the film as a whole. A CLOWN’S RECOVERY is definitely a touching film, but it refuses to try to manipulate the audience with cheap pathos. In fact, Matthew Broomfield consciously thumbs his nose at that particular documentary convention.
Despite the unexpectedly lighter tone, there were a lot of touching moments. I certainly cried a few times. Especially affecting was the brief mention of Jason. If Eric died in the hospital — and at first, that looked like a strong possibility — not only would Matthew have lost both of his brothers, but those poor parents of theirs would have lost two of their sons under tragic circumstances.
Eric does end up waking up from his coma and he has some especially rough nights as he drifts in and out of reality because of the massive regime of drugs the hospital has put him on. One of the sweetest moments of the film comes when Eric is having a rough time with his hallucinations and Matthew puts his hand on his brother’s chest and softly soothes him, saying, “Just relax. You’re safe.”
The scenes inside the hospital are filmed on Matthew’s Blackberry (the hospital wouldn’t allow his camera inside the room), so you really get a sense of the guerilla, on the fly nature of the production. Matthew just whatever sort of tools he had available to get the film done.
The American healthcare system fucking sucks, and A CLOWN’S RECOVERY is an unfortunate reminder. Eric was injured in New York City, but since he’s a Pennsylvania resident, he didn’t qualify for any sort of financial aid. Even though, you know, Eric didn’t have much of a choice in the location where he caught fire.
Yes, he did choose the sideshow life, and not having health insurance always carries a certain amount of risk, but it’s a risk that a lot of independent artists are almost forced to take, since they don’t make much money beyond living expenses. But even if you think these artist types should just find a way to pay for insurance, how the hell do we justify punishing anyone for almost dying? And to the tune of $400,000?
A CLOWN’S RECOVERY ends on a hopeful note, though, with narration from Eric in which he mentions that one of his dying thoughts was that he’d never been to Asia. Well, that trip does end up happening, and, yes, there’s a movie about it, but their next film was something quite different.
CARNIVOLUTION: SATAN’S PLAYTHINGS was filmed in 2009, but it wasn’t released until 2016. It’s a sort of fiction / documentary hybrid that takes several Carnivolution live shows and sews them together into an intergalactic bizarro narrative. To separate the shows, there’s little animated segments by Thomas Kastrati that act as transitions. (Jelly Boy and crew visit different planets and realms throughout the narrative. They even go to Hell.)
The Carnivolution shows, which still take place at the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum, though infrequently these days, are much more theater-oriented than the Squidlings’ touring show. There’s plenty of sideshow stunts, but they’re usually incorporated into a kind of loose stage play. And each performance is unique. If you were to go two or three times in the same season, you’d never see the same thing. It’s got to be pretty intense to basically have to create a new play every month, but Carnivolution only runs during the spring and summer, so I suppose there’s the rest of the year to come up with ideas. Still, my lazy self shudders at the thought.
It’s dark stuff, but it’s also very playful — a mix of childhood wonder and adult brooding and dark psychedelic surrealism. Some of the things you’ll see in this video are nipple-shaped spaceships, human-sized puppets with breasts all over their bodies, plenty of regular-sized puppets with giant penises, and ample rubber chickens in various states of disarray.
Technique-wise, the movie leaves a bit to be desired. The first show was filmed with two cameras, each in a different aspect ratio. It takes you out of the thing a bit when the differences are so jarring, but things get better in later shows where, even though they never have the same look, the two cameras are at least in the same aspect ratio. You get used to it pretty quickly, and in a weird way it all kind of works in that it matches the frenetic, anarchic, unpolished nature of the stage show. In a way, it takes you all that much closer to actually being there.
Their latest film, SQUIDLINGS AROUND THE WORLD (2019) is the first Squidling Brothers film co-directed by Eric. He’d directed a short scene in FREAKSHOW APOCALYPSE, and maybe some other stuff I’m not aware of, too, but this is the first time he played an equal part in bringing the whole thing together.
After charity shows raised about $10,000 for Eric in the aftermath of his hospitalization, he realized that it wouldn’t make much of a dent in his $400,000 medical bill, so he used some of the money for living expenses while he recovered from his injuries, and the rest was used to finance a trip to Europe, India, and Japan.
It took eight years to edit the movie, since they had to do it between tours. Eric told me over the phone recently that the gaps helped the brothers to look at the material more objectively. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that, since this is definitely their most polished film to date.
The Squidlings were quite busy in Europe. In the film’s narration, Eric says that they toured “Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia, Belgium, and Holland.” Some of these locations were probably new to them, although they’ve been to Germany quite a bit since then. In fact, it’s one of the three cities in which the brothers say the troupe is based. (The other two being New York and Philadelphia.)
The European footage features plenty of Roc Roc It, a sideshow performer who integrates his stunts into a kind of stand-up comedy routine. This is something I will always approve of. I could watch an entire film just based around him. Behind the Broomfield brothers, he’s kind of the star of the movie, since he also meets them in Tokyo when they arrive.
On the European tour, the small Squidling troupe often performs with local sideshow people at whatever city they’re in. They’re quite the vagabonds, tramping around the continent in a little bus, and, as Eric says at one point, they “slept in the places [they] performed.”
After Europe, Eric and Matthew break from the rest of the group and head to India. They have a stopover in Moscow, but they miss their connecting flight, which leads to an unfortunate incident with the Russian government. Because they don’t Russian visas, they’re escorted to a hotel for the night, and although they’re allowed to order room service, there are two armed soldiers guarding the door to prevent them from leaving. Well, but I guess that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re involved in a kind of seat of the pants trip like this.
Anyway, they reach India without any further incidents, spend some time hanging out with a friend in Delhi, and then head out to a small village to observe some street magicians performing for children. It’s goddamn incredible watching the looks of wonder on these kids’ faces while they watch the performers with awestruck eyes.
The India section, the majority of which is the street magicians’ performance, takes up a pretty big chunk of the film’s running time, with the Broomfields largely standing back and watching the show along with the children.
Indeed, we’ll never again look at the world the way these children look at the street magicians, but by watching people push their bodies to the physical limit in a sideshow, us weirdo grownups get back a little bit of that wonder and awe that we felt as children. For a few minutes, once again, anything we can imagine is possible. The experience might be a tad less pure than it was during childhood, but the effect is similar. I think in a lot of ways, this is Matthew and Eric’s ultimate legacy — they push us a little further into the unknown with playfulness and humor. Whether you see them live or on your TV, it’s always a hell of a trip.