Monday, February 9, 2009

Carnival of Souls (USA, 1962)

An atmospheric, enjoyable low key supernatural thriller that has gained a rather large cult following over the recent years, a large enough following to result in its having to suffer a completely misguided reinterpretation in 1998 (trailer). Oddly enough, while she has nothing good to say about the new version, it was actually Candice Hilligoss, the lead of the first version, that instigated the remake in the first place. As she tells it, she was deviously maneuvered out of the project by the Hollywood Powers involved, people who had no feeling for the material and merely raped the original idea in hope of filling their pockets. Hilligoss’s bad feelings and justified spite aside, the remake of Carnival of Souls, released as a Wes Craven production (probably more for the commercial drawing power of his name than for any actual participation), is truly a piece of shite.
Rather unlike the original version, Henk Harvey’s first and only shot at feature-length film making, a $30,000.00 labor of love filmed in Kansas and Utah utilizing a number of students from the Theatre Department of Kansas University. According to the film’s cinematographer Maurice Prather, Carnival of Souls was made because everyone “wanted to make a movie that would make a little money,” but the film is so contrary to popular, mainstream notions of horror films — and indeed, it was less than well received upon its original, very short release — that it seems hard to believe that there weren’t some other, more artistically oriented intentions pervading for both Henk Harvey and the film’s scriptwriter, John Clifford. It is easy to conjecture that the monotony of the productions of the Centron Corporation, an industrial and educational film company in Lawrence, Kansas, where they both worked, created the urge in the two to finally do something original, to make something special.
In any event, the snide remark by The Washington Post that Carnival of Souls is "an existential horror cheapie" can be viewed as on the mark, so long as one ignores the intentionally insulting aspects of the word "cheapie." Much like Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (trailer), which was made a year later, Carnival of Souls is less a "cheapie" than merely a "financially handicapped," highly individual project that boasts of a dreamlike quality, a finely tuned use of black & white photography, excellent nuances of characterization and an overall effective sense of unease rather than any mundane Hollywood production sensibility. (Unlike the remake, which had the budget but feels cheap — and sleazy — despite itself.)
Carnival of Souls begins with a drag race that ends with a disaster — a car, filled with three young girls, goes off the side of a bridge and sinks, seemingly taking all three occupants to their deaths. Three hours later, while the local authorities are still trying to locate the submerged car, a wet and muddied Mary Henry (South-Dakota-born Candice Hilligoss) emerges at the river side, dazed, confused and with no memory of what has happened. A cold, distant woman, she leaves the town the very next day to take up her new job as an organist in a church in Utah, not even stopping off to visit her parents who live along the way. Entering Utah, she passes a large, deserted pavilion and suffers her first hallucination, the reflection of a ghoulish, pale-skinned man with deep rings around the eyes (an uncredited appearance by director Henk Harvey). (Truth be told, while it might seem sacrilegious to all them film fans out there who worship this film, the make-up job on this guy and the other "souls" is pretty cheesy — far cheesier than that of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead (trailer), which is often said to have been influenced by this film.)
Arriving in her new domicile, she takes up a room in the boarding house of Mrs. Thomas (Francis Feist), where she quickly suffers more hallucinations, at one point even seeing the man walking around downstairs. After introducing herself to her boss, with whom she makes a brief visit to the exterior of the old, deserted carnival outside of town, Mary goes to buy a dress and, while in the changing room, suffers a warping of reality (symbolised cheaply and very effectively by a slight, water-like rippling): Suddenly, not only can she not hear anyone or anything, but no one realises her presence. She runs terrified through the town accompanied only by the clacking of her own shoes, a sound made all the more unnatural since it doesn’t always match her steps (probably an accidental effect, but none the less, quiet effective). Later she does regain her grasp onto — into? — reality at the local park, but her relief is short lived. In an abysmal attempt to regain some sort of humane connection to the world and people around her, she goes out on a miserable date with John (Sidney Berger), the alcoholic, dislikeable jerk who lives across the hall. The next day, while practising on the organ in the church, her hands seem to come alive by themselves and play an "ungodly" music, resulting in the loss of her job. Trying to flee the town, she suffers a reoccurrence of her disassociation with the world around her and is unable to leave; at the local bus station, when she unexpectedly hears the announcement of a departing bus, she boards it only to find it full of more dreadful ghouls, whom she barely manages to escape.....
To tell more would involve having to reveal the ending, and while the ending is not exactly unexpected,
Carnival of Souls deserves to be seen, not just read about... so if you want to find out what happens, go rent it. (Or buy it: If a good quality version is too pricey for you, almost any given 99-cent store selling cheap, public-domain DVDs has a copy — what’s more, you can download it for free here at the Internet Archives.)
The film definitely isn’t your normal low-budget piece of trash, and while it doesn’t force you to buy new underwear, it does offer some downright chilling moments, such as when Mary goes wandering alone in the pavilion or whenever she becomes "disassociated." The dialog tends to be a bit odd in an interesting way, but one is never sure if it is meant to be so ironically (as in the average David Lynch film) or is simply incompetently written. Contrasting that, much of the acting is superb — in the case of John, he comes across as such a jerk that one can’t help but think that he had to be one in real life, too. Candace Hilligoss does an excellent job as Mary as well, her portrayal effectively going from distant and disinterested to disoriented and helpless to terrified. That she never had an active career in the movies or on television is surprising. A onetime student of Lee Strasberg, she clearly had talent. Be what it may, her only other cinematic outing seems to have been in one of Roy Scheider’s first films,
Curse of the Living Corpse (1964/trailer), directed by Del Tenny, the same man who disgorged Horror at the Beach Party (1964/trailer) and Zombie / Voodoo Blood Bath (1964). The latter of the three films gained considerable unjustified fame when it was re-released in 1971 as I Eat Your Skin on a double bill with the fun I Drink Your Blood (trailer).

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