‘Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood’ – Why You Should Watch This Obscure Horror Oddity 50 Years Later

There are nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently advancing through state legislatures. Many bills specifically target drag shows or other public performances–censoring or outright banning them. Of course, there are also plenty of Don’t Say Gay bills, bathroom bills, and other anti-trans bills circulating in this country. It’s a terrifying time to be queer. Such lawmaking creates an atmosphere of fear, hate, and violence, and it’s difficult to find joy. Joy, such an elusive experience these days. But I found the joy I so desperately needed recently with Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse’s Summoning Sylvia, one of the year’s most important releases.

The film tells the story of a group of gay friends on a weekend retreat to celebrate Larry’s (Travis Coles) upcoming nuptials. Reggie (Troy Iwata), Kevin (Noah Ricketts), and Nico (Frankie Grande) bankroll a three-night stay in a creepy Victorian-style home, where allegedly a woman named Sylvia Lawrence brutally murdered her only son Phillip (Camden Garcia) and buried his body on the property. She was then executed by townsfolk and now haunts the premises with vengeance in her eyes. Ghost stories only ever partially resemble the truth, and Sylvia and Phillip’s tragedy is far sadder once you dig below the earth-crusted surface.

The group arrives mid-afternoon, the sun burning hot through the atmosphere, and immediately begins exploring the grounds. “I’m having a moment,” gushes Larry over the sweeping architecture. Feeling comfortably at home, Larry seeks out one of two elaborate staircases, on which he hopes to razzle-dazzle with a little end-of-weekend performance. He descends the creaky staircase, shimmying his shoulders and eyes as bright as neon.

A people pleaser, Larry always makes sure everyone else is comfortable without taking into account his own feelings. He consistently makes concessions when it comes to his soon-to-be brother-in-law Harrison’s (Nicholas Logan) bigotry, smoothing over Harrison’s comments with a shrug or nervous laugh. When his fiance Jamie (Michael Urie) discovers he’s actually upstate for the weekend, Larry invites Harrison to make the drive up and spend some quality time together. A Kuwait veteran, Harrison possesses exaggerated machismo, and it seeps from his pores. He hates being called sweetie and finds Kevin and Reggie’s unexpected hook-up “disgusting.” Harrison represents Bible-thumping politicians and others on the right who call queer people “groomers” and pedal “protect the kids” rhetoric. Harrison, who gets violent when he drinks, is the real threat.

Before Harrison arrives, the flamboyant and stylish Nico whips out his spellbook and a crystal ball for a little soul-casting séance. Nico wants to have a little spooky fun and find out the truth about Sylvia and her son. In true paranormal fashion, the ritual conjures up their spirits, and it’s unclear whether they’re angry or simply yearning to have their story told. Sylvia and Phillip make their presence known through banging in the walls and the sweet hum of a melody gliding throughout the house一or so the group believes. Even Harrison is shaken to his core.

Over the next several hours, Nico, Reggie, and Kevin rifle through boxes in the basement and discover a black and white photograph of Phillip and “his heart,” as scrawled in Sylvia’s handwriting on the back. Nico puts the pieces together, and it’s revealed that Sylvia didn’t kill her son at all. In fact, she discovered his secret of being gay and helped him escape the mob, choosing to sacrifice her life instead of letting the mob slaughter the two young boys. 

This backstory further contextualizes why Summoning Sylvia is such a vital film in 2023. While it’s light on actual scares, there’s a tremendous amount of heart through its dissection of bigotry and hate. Harrison’s hateful words mirror those of the townsfolk and provide the emotional core of the story. “I don’t know any gay people,” he says, “and all of a sudden, my brother, he’s gay, and he’s getting gay married. And I’m having parties with gay guys…” Larry then finally stands for himself, saying, “I’ve been trying really hard to make things easier.. .for you. I even put you over my friends, which will not happen again, because I’m tired of apologizing for myself.”

Larry’s words move Harrison, so much so the two embrace in an emotional hug. Harrison’s redemption arc proves that even the most homophobic among us can have a change of heart. It’s not always easy, but it is possible. A comedy with horror elements, Summoning Sylvia concludes with an epic drag performance down the home’s elegant wooden staircase. Even the once-bigoted Harrison gets dolled up in an auburn wig, blue dress, and full makeup.

Set to Ella Fitzgerald’s “After You’ve Gone” (as performed by Carolee Carmello) the group lip-syncs like their lives depend on it, each taking the spotlight for their own verses. There’s glitter, gorgeous gowns, perfectly-coiffed wigs–and queer people simply living their most authentic selves and absolutely thriving. It’s a welcome celebration that demonstrates the art of drag performance and its importance to self-expression. With this country in such a sorry state, Summoning Sylvia is a shot of hope–that things aren’t totally lost. That there is the possibility of change in the world. And that those on the right will finally wake up.

Summoning Sylvia is now available on VOD outlets.

Summoning Sylvia

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