The reviews on this feature film writing and directing debut by Disney wildlife documentarian David Fowler have been of the middling-to-hated variety. And I must admit that, after my first watch, I didn’t care for Welcome to the Circle either — and since I couldn’t find a positive in the film, I wasn’t going to write this review.
But obviously, there’s something happening here — or you wouldn’t be reading this — in the Don Coscarelli-mindfuck frames that I just couldn’t put my finger on my first go-around. For this film’s raison d’etre isn’t flying Chinese cuisinart harmony balls: it’s mannequins and masks and fucked up human-strung marionettes. And it wasn’t until Sam, our Mix Master General of the Movie-themed Drink Blender, rolled out another “Giallo Week” of even deeper Italian and Spanish obscurities*, and my sitting down for a two-day Nazisplotiation binge as I geared up for my review of Naomi Holwill’s everything-you-wanted-to-know-but-were-afraid-to-ask genre document Fascism on a Thread: The Strange Story of Nazisploitation Cinema, that the celluloid memory centers of my analog cortex streamed across the synapses in hallucinatory harmony.
There are just some movies that require a second run through the digital sprocket rollers. The FUBAR’d world of Welcome to the Circle is one of those films.
Now Giallo and Nazisploitation films may not — at all — be at the ambiguity-open-to-your-interpretation roots of Fowler’s retro-madness, but somewhere along the line, between the feel-good Disney docs, he’s ingested his share of films from both genres and they somehow bled into his Final Draft QWERTY-ing.
We’ve got the mannequin and mask creepiness of Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil and Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo. There’s Coscarelli’s they-don’t-make-any-sense surrealistic nightmares of the Phantasm franchise. There’s Bigas Luna’s snail-slithering corkscrews of Anguish. There’s the haunting of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls with his mannequin-like souls in their undead waltz. There’s the twisted, pseudo-Nazi ideology that makes no sense to anyone but its we-can-do-whatever-we-want followers. Then there’s those narrative time jumps (which seems to annoy the streamer-critics the most) where you don’t know if the character’s insane, trapped in a dream, or the owls are hootin’ down at the Ambrose Bierce bridge of reincarnation sighs.
As the film begins, we meet Greg, a father who takes Samantha, his young daughter, on a bonding camping trip; they’re subsequently attacked by a bear. However, amid the film’s unfurling ambiguity and surrealism, one questions if the bear attack was even real — and if the attack was, instead, in human form, since cults need children to nurture.
Greg comes to wake in the warming bosom of The Circle, a backwoods cult led by a Matthew, a white-suited Ron L. Hubbard-type that deals in philosophical, circular logic: reasoning that means nothing to know one but the cult’s members — whose numbers are dwindling.
And here’s where those mannequins and masks come in . . . and time starts a-jumpin’.
As Samatha’s assimilated into the cult, she’s obsessed with wearing a happy-face mask given to her by the cult’s flower-child rhetoric-spewing handmaidens Sky and Lotus Cloud. In fact, anytime someone is absorbed into the cult — by their own will or by force — they “personality” is replaced by a doppelganger mask. And as the cult numbers dwindle — by escape or death (we think) — they’re replaced by doppelganger mannequins that, (again, we think; keeping with the film’s circular mindfuckery), represents the lost, human soul . . . or the zombie-like autonomic nature of man . . . and your own mindfuck opinions, may vary.
Also pulled into the time loops and identity shifts is Grady, a professional cult deprogrammer hired by a husband and sister-in-law to abduct the cult’s third hippy-handmaiden, Rebekah.
Then there’s the right-back-where-you-started multi-dimensional travel and whacked-out hallucinations of the Tallman “Space Gate” variety that occur in the rural lair-shack of perpetually reincarnating Percy Stephens, an evil Baron Munchausen-styled world adventurer — (cursed to?) a lair that, you always end up where you left. As with Rudolf Enich Raspe’s literary hero, Percy’s a master sportsman, world-class deep sea navy diver, and world traveler (and master B.S. artist) whose life experiences led to his creation of The Circle, a supernatural cult with twisted moral standards. (Luckily, Percy wasn’t a product of Nazi Germany — but he did subjugate some African natives along the way, at least according to the creepy, morphing black and white wall photos hung around the compound, and per everyone’s Ringu-jittery mindbending flashbacks — or this backwoods camp would be a backwoods Nazi-prison farm with Sploitation-atrocities o’ plenty.)
Does young Samantha escape and is Rebekah rescued? Yep. But Rebekah’s got a shite-eating-grin on her face as Samantha fans the pages of the self-made book, “The Adventures of Percy Stephens.” So, will The Circle, continue?
All in all, I’m glad I gave Welcome to the Circle a well-deserved second watch. And it’s well worth your streaming it the first time. But hey, we’re the guys who loved The Invisible Mother, She’s Allergic to Cats, and Under the Silver Lake — that almost everybody else hated and didn’t see. So what do us film reviewing schlemiels and schlimazels of Hasenpfeffer Incorporated in the backwoods of Allegheny County know? We’d tell you that the Giallo cycle was misunderstood by mainstream Americana, with the genre’s mixtures of murder, the supernatural, Entomology, and junk sciences (and, in The Circle’s case: junk philosophy) wrongly critiqued as “style over substance” and “lacking in narrative logic.” And you’d say, “Poppycock.”
And that’s your loss, for you just missed out on a great introduction to a new voice in horror with this debut work from David Fowler.
After a making its streaming debut in October 2020 on various online platforms, Welcome to the Circle makes its January 2021 debut as a free-with-ads stream on Tubi. You can learn more about the film at Artsploitation Films and follow the film at its official Facebook page.
* In June of last year, we had our first, month-long Giallo blowout, which we recapped with our “Exploring: Giallo” featurette with review links to over 50 films. Yep, the blood runs Tallman-yellow in our veins. And there’s nothing like starting off a New Year with Giallos; you can catch up on our reviews with our three-part “Giallo Week Wrap Ups”: Recap 1, Recap 2. and Recap 3.
Disclaimer: We did not receive a review request from the director or a P.R firm. We discovered this film on our own and we truly enjoyed the film.