Alex de la Iglesia's glossy grindhouse lark, The Last Circus, opens with a nasty, over-the-big-top bloodbath. We're in Spain. It's 1937. Franco's on the rise. A newly conscripted Republican Army clown cuts through a phalanx of Nationalist troops. It's not worth explaining how or why the clown was recruited.

A prurient entertainment such as this need not (should not!) delve too deeply into such matters. I will follow suit and get to the good stuff. So the machete descends and crimson geysers gush and spew, decorating the desaturated hues of the battlefield, further staining the clown's already stained face. (Think Spielberg's D-Day with hints of Robert Rodriguez's shrill anarchy, then lower your expectations just a little.)

The film ends 90 minutes later, 36 years later—Spain still, 1973 now, Franco in decline—with two mutilated clowns laughing until they cry. Or crying until they laugh. It's hard to tell, what with the obliterated jaw one of them must muscle through and the melted face with which the other must convey feeling. It's an oddly affecting scene, although I suppose the sight and sound of a pair of painted demons cackling through charred and gnawed and otherwise fucked-up flesh can't not be affecting, no matter how hacky the schlockmeister behind the camera.

This is not to say that Iglesia's virtually idiot-proof concept, which finds rival clowns who love the same acrobat descending into twinned states of unhinged bloodlust against a backdrop of political unrest, is hiding any hackery that might otherwise express itself in a more pedestrian movie. (Something involving, say, rather amiable clowns who play cards and shoot the breeze instead of beating each other with trumpets or hiding out in lairs decorated with skulls.) Iglesia has a knack for chaotic escalation, for the slow accumulation of grisly bits, and he also elicits a subtly tender, even moving performance (pre-face melt) from Carlos Areces, whose schlubby sad clown can't quite cope with frustrated sexual desire, and so runs naked through the woods and bites Franco's hand and melts his own skin off instead.

And while Iglesia is not quite able to conjure a complete world of eerie melancholy to match Areces' airs or break through to the realm of circus-freak darkness where Tod Browning and Lon Chaney felt at home, he's willing to go the distance to make you squirm. Sometimes that's good enough. R.

71 SEE IT. The Last Circus opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.