FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 9, 2007

Day 8- "You think I'm insane?"

Wow, another black and white public domain flick made it onto my Willies List! What are the odds? Actually, Carnival of Souls (1962) is the third such film to make it onto my list, along with Night of the Living Dead ('68) and Nosferatu ('22). It just goes to show you something or other, I'm sure.

One fine afternoon, some crazy kids decide to engage in some impromptu drag racing. They gleefully ignore a "road closed!" warning sign, and eventually the car filled with girls pitches off the side of a bridge, ending up in the drink. Pfft- women drivers, am I right or am I right? Unfortunately, only Mary (Candace Hilligoss) survives- she emerges from the muddy river in an understandable state of confusion.

Shortly after the accident, Mary is off to Utah to embark on a new career as a church organist, though she makes it eminently clear to all involved that her new occupation doesn't mean she's the churchy type: "I'm not taking the vows, I'm just playing the organ." This is disappointing news for her new boss, who insists she try to put her soul into the gig- a church organist can't get by on talent and skill alone, after all.

During the long drive to her new home, Mary sees creepy figures-n-faces along the road; is she crazy, or is there something...sinister happening in Utah?

There's an abandoned amusement park and pavilion in town to which Mary seems inexplicably drawn. The visions of ghostly figures seem to follow her around everywhere, and in one well-executed sequence, Mary herself seems to be invisible to those around her; while shopping, the saleswomen cease responding to her. Both in the store and out, all is silent: a jackhammer runs soundlessly, and Mary hears no footsteps save her own. What the eff is going on here, and will the answers be found at the eerie pavilion?

Let's be honest here: we all know what the eff is going on here. It's been 40-odd years since the film's release, and the central idea of Carnival of Souls has been addressed countless times. If you've seen at lease one episode of The Twilight Zone, then you can pretty much guess the plot withing the film's first ten minutes. But who cares? The fun is in the getting there, right? And Carnival is a damn spooky little film that's critically acclaimed but often publicly ignored. The critical acclaim is well-earned, however, as director Herk Harvey (who also plays the role of the 'main ghost' throughout the film, pictured above) squeezes everything he can out of a modest budget to create an atmospheric ghost tale.

The acting, for the most part, is undeniably amateurish and audiences not enthralled by "mood" pieces (such as Let's Scare Jessica to Death) will likely be yawning. But people like that are jerks, so who cares?

Should you feel like scratching beneath the surface, I suppose Mary's plight throughout Carnival of Souls could be seen as a metaphor for a woman who dismisses traditional ideas of what role she should play in society, not unlike that of the nameless protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. Mary isn't a church-goer, she doesn't care what the other "ladies" think of her, she hasn't had any desire to have a boyfriend or a child, she leaves her family behind to take on a new job in another state, and she just plain can't seem to relate to people. She must be crazy! None of those characteristics seem particularly notable today, but wholesome young women simply didn't act that way in 1962. Of course, we horror folk know that she's neither crazy nor attempting to strike a blow for women's rights, right? Right.

In related news, star Candace Hilligoss was the winner of the 1962 Anne Heche Looky-Likey Contest.

And yes, the Anne Heche Looky-Likey Contest was created before Anne Heche was.

As I said, Carnival of Souls is indeed in the public domain, which means you can buy shitty copies at your local dollar store, you can download it off the internet, or you can seek out the (naturally) pricy and super-sweet Criterion Edition. Drool. There's even a colorized version of the film out there somewhere for those of you who can't deal with black and white; I've yet to see it, but I can't help but assume that it won't be on par with the gorgeous cinematography of the original.

The film's score, which relies heavily on organs (whether Mary is playing them or not), gives Carnival a nice touch of the gothic. The ghostly/zombie-ish figures become increasingly aggressive throughout the film; in a scene recalled later in numerous horror films (recently in Romero's Land of the Dead) they finally rise from the water and eventually give chase in a horrifying sequence in the empty, decaying pavilion.

Again it's proven that you don't need much to make an effective horror film! Again it's proven that you can find some gems in the public domain!

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to prove, once again, how much I love pizza.


Anonymous said...

Yes, a wonderful movie with the lights out! We watch it just about very Halloween, great to know the power mockingbirds have over the walking undead.

Melizer said...

Ooooh! Just that second photo alone gives me the willies! Spooky! Or, as a little girl a friend used to babysit used to say, "smooky".

The Director's Cut is on its way to me tomorrow!

Melizer said...

BTW apparently The Yellow Wallpaper will be a full-length feature film next year. I'll be sure to read it before then!

M said...

That last screen cap totally looks like a post-punk music video from the eighties.

Anonymous said...

When I finally saw this flick, I was knocked out! I was totally surprised by how affecting it is.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the score is only organ music, every note. I love this movie and was lucky enough to see it theatrically when it was rereleased in 1989.

I wrote about the movie at The Movie Morlocks in August:

Eddie Hardy said...

These lovely screenshots make the movie look even more gorgeous than I remember. Thanks for this.

Steve said...

I picked this up on a whim at one of the aforementioned dollar stores. It's now in my Top Ten for best horror movies. It's not perfect, but it's effective in a dark room, even a hotel room where I watched it on a business trip. And many of the shots are copied in numerous later movies. Too bad no one from this movie went on to do much else. :(

Joseph Emmerth said...

I remember when I first saw this:

It was a friday night about ten years ago, and i was in K-mart (don't ask).
I was pouring through the "2.99 DVD" bin and saw this in a double feature with Horror Hotel. I figured, hey,"Horror Hotel", Christopher Lee! It's got to be worth a few bucks. When I watched the OTHER movie a few days later, I was spellbound, as I had not guessed the ending. Sweet flick.

Anonymous said...

"audiences not enthralled by "mood" pieces (such as Let's Scare Jessica to Death) will likely be yawning. But people like that are jerks, so who cares?"

Well put. Those jerks drive me crazy!!!
Other than some of the acting, the film is pretty close to perfection.

Chris Otto said...

I've seen this movie a half-dozen times and I fall more in love with it each time. More than anything else, I love the fact that it got made (and, of course, survived the test of time to make it to the 21st century). This movie, without the help of "real filmmakers," "Hollywood," or an actual budget ... got made and is really bleeping good. The use of Saltair in Utah was absolutely inspired, and gives the film a haunting, empty feel you can't replicate with big budgets and CGI. I am also more impressed with Candace Hilligoss upon each viewing. I don't know if it was a singular or collaborative creative decision to make her character so isolated and off-putting, but she nails the performance -- so much so that I'm surprised she didn't get more acting work over the years. ... Anyway, am adding this because I showed this to my daughter for the first time last night and I asked her about halfway through, "Why do you think The Man is haunting her?" and she promptly replied, "Because she's dead, but she doesn't realize it." ... KIDS THESE DAYS!