Thursday, February 6, 2014

Video Vault: Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls: Evocative low budget film may have helped shape the zombie genre.

 by Shawn K. Inlow

Anyone who's seen a lot of cinema can quickly note the antecedents of and precedents set by today's tidy little horror masterpiece.  Perhaps the little film has never got its due, but it reminds of a very good Twilight Zone episode and foreshadows films like "Night of the Living Dead."

What sets this small budget 1962 indie apart, though, is its thoroughly eerie atmosphere.  Even scenes of very normal every day life seem uncomfortable to the viewer.  And the movie isn't a shocker.  It's ... idunno... ominous?  

Mary Henry
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Candace Hilligoss is a poor man's Janet Leigh, a pretty-ish blonde who manages to crawl out of a river (at right) after a terrible car crash.  She doesn't remember anything about the crash or others who might have disappeared in the water, but she decides to continue to a small Utah town where she will take up employment as a church organist.

Mary Henry is a woman on a very strange journey.

"Date!  Yeah!  That's the ticket!"

She distances herself from people and seems not to know how to mix in.  She doesn't know what to do with the lothario, John Linden (played by Sidney Berger, he's the spitting image of a young John Lovitz' "Liar Guy" who's taken a step right to the edge of creepy.) who boards at the same house.  Despite working in a church setting, she does not take religion seriously.  (On the cusp of the moralist 1950s, I can see this being a glaring road-sign more then than now.)

Completing the picture of isolation are these unnerving sequences when the film goes utterly quiet in an otherwise mundane setting and Mary feels like nobody can see her.  A psychologist explains her fright by noting she's had a recent shock.

Zombie #1?
Zombie #1a by Romero?

And then there's this guy.  Herk Harvey, until then a director of industrial educational films, used egg white on his face to transform himself into the quintessential pallid phantasm who seems to pursue Mary.  The use of this image, through a car window, or submerged in shallow water puts a cherry on top of this film's atmosphere.  Harvey's phantasm (left) perfectly imagines the nattily dressed, freshly buried zombie (right) from the opening scenes of 1969's zombie classic by George Romero, "Night of the Living Dead."

An abandoned music pier seems to call out to Mary Henry. Drawing her toward her uncertain fate.
One of the principle locations used in the film is an abandoned amusement park, set shadowy and broken down on a music pier.  The place looks byzantine in its affect, with domed spires and Arabian arches.  Like some broken down Coney Island, it echos a past liveliness gone to seed.  This location seems to call out to Mary and peak her curiosity.  In the way a clown can look laughable or lurid, this setting was a nightmare come true for Herk Harvey when he was able to use it at no cost.

And "Carnival of Souls" makes gorgeous use of its black and white.  The lighting and the use of shadow in this film propel the film like a broken wheel-chair careening downhill toward spooky-town.  There are countless still frames here that bear pausing the grinder and pouring over the image.  Add this to a soundtrack that can soothe or jar the senses.  The use of heavy doses of organ music makes obvious sense in the plot and the way it darts between sacred and hellish adds nicely to the film's themes.

I run the risk of giving this little late night gem too much credit.  But I cannot escape the thought that it is one of those little movies, like "Targets" (1968) or "Last House on the Left" (1972), that helped change the genre, bridging the gap from classic Universal monster mashes and Hammer horror to the nascent stages of what we have today.  The fright went from being external (a monster) to being internal (fear and uncertainty).  Or worse, the horror of the perfectly normal.

Candace Hilligoss portrays Mary Henry - A woman on a most unusual journey - in today's feature, "Carnival of Souls."
THANKS & DEDICATION:  This post was the result, albeit a late responding one, to a reader somewhere in the northeast.  She'd dropped me an email and I don't have it anymore asking for a treatment of this film, so I got right on it.  Within the week I'd gotten the Criterion disc from Netflix and studied the film for about three days, doing a shot by shot viewing and producing dozens of pages of notes.

So my apologies to that reader for taking so long and I hope this post reaches you somehow.  I doubly apologize for letting your note slip such that I couldn't remember your name.  My bad.  But your taste in film is good, at least by this example.  And this was a fun film to study. 

So if anyone else wants to put a delicious film on the Voice of the Mountain list, please fire away in the comments below and I'll be happy to oblige.  I especially love finding the little films that people may have missed.  And to the nice lady who suggested "Carnival of Souls," please drop me a line again and let me know your reaction to the post.  For now, accept this review as my thanks.

Until next time, Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. I've loved this weird little movie for a long time.


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