Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Monsterpiece Theater: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Before we get started…I just wanted to say that this year, we will be continuing with the Universal Monster Mash reviews. There are a few left to cover, (including one that Andrew absolutely insisted I review as part of the series). The problem is that my schedule didn’t give me the time I needed to watch all the necessary films for the next Monster. Fortunately, last year I had jotted down an outline for a review that I never got around to. So, if you’ll permit me, I’m going to go briefly off topic and discuss an independent cult classic from the early 1960’s.

A Rather Odd Introduction

Okay, for a guy who enjoys writing film reviews as much as I do, it’s time I made an unusual confession: I rarely, if ever, go to movie theaters anymore. (I almost gave them up after seeing Captain America: Civil War.) In fact, the only thing I go to see regularly on the big screen is the Rifftrax group. A successor comedy troupe to Mystery Science Theater, (made of the show’s former writers/performers), Mike, Kevin, and Bill are still at work making fun of Hollywood releases and B-grade shlock. And their live shows are about all I go to see on the big screen nowadays.
So, it was at a Rifftrax Live Halloween show three years ago that I was introduced to ‘Carnival of Souls’ – well, a colorized version of ‘Carnival of Souls’ with a constant barrage of jokes aimed at the film’s low budget and flaws. And yet, despite the comedic setting, odd color, and, at times, near Manos- level budget, there was something about his film that didn’t let me forget about it.


The Story

Things begin somewhat abruptly when Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) and her two friends run some red lights and race another car toward a bridge in Kansas. The two autos bump and Mary’s car falls off the bridge and CRASHES into the river. Dredging crews fail to find the car, but Mary is rescued when she appears almost out of nowhere on the river’s muddy bank.
Two days later, Mary leaves for a new job in Saint Lake City as a church organist. However, along the way, her attention is drawn to an abandoned pavilion/amusement park along the darkening road. She then CRASHES into a ditch when a ghoulish-looking figure (director Herk Harvey, known only as the Man), appears on the road. Mary manages to get back on the road and, unable to find the class-five full-roaming vapor, makes it into town and tries to start a new life.
However, the Man keeps appearing every now and then. There are also times where Mary finds herself unable to communicate with people, as though she were invisible. And finally, Mary also feels drawn to the abandoned pavilion, which she visits first with her boss, the pastor (who refuses to set foot on the property), and then again, against the advice of a doctor trying to help understand what’s going on. (But, to be honest, he does hurt his credibility by admitting he’s not a psychiatrist. That’s where a lack of PhD’s in parapsychology and psychology will get you.)

Things reach a head when, while envisioning ghouls dancing in the pavilion’s ballroom, Mary plays a macabre song on the church organ in a trance-like state. The pastor finds the music ‘sacrilegious’ and informs her that the board of choirs has terminated her employment and she must vacate the organ bench immediately. Mary tries to forget what happened by going on a date with her obviously rape-intentioned neighbor, Mr. Linden (professional scene-chewer Sidney Berger). However, another hysterical sighting of the Man in her room causes even this guy to freak out and run away. Mary decides it’s time to try and escape.
The next day, while waiting for car repairs, Mary again finds herself unable to communicate with anyone. After running across town, (and encountering more ghouls), she heads for the therapist’s office- only to find the Man sitting in the chair. Mary wakes up in her car and after NEARLY CRASHING, drives back to the pavilion. There, she watches as the ghouls rise out of the water of Great Salt Lake, and begin to dance. Say what you want about these spooks. They have no trouble crossing the streams.
Mary then sees an undead version of herself dancing with the Man, which leads to only one possible action…
Mary: “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!”
Ghouls: “GET HER!!”
The ghosts chase Mary out of the pavilion, through the dried-up docks, and, as she screams hysterically, across the sand. And can you blame her? I mean, it’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Oh, and she falls and the ghouls finally get her. Later, a team of police, the pastor, and the doctor find Mary’s footprints- and only Mary’s footprints- on the beach toward the lake, but no trace of her, or of tracks back to the pavilion. Back in Kansas, a car is dredged up, containing the bodies of three girls. One of them is Mary. Thus, proving there’s no place like home- even when you’re dead.
‘I Want to Make a Movie this Time’

‘CoS’ (if you’ll pardon my use of abbreviations), was made by Herk Harvey and other employees of Centron in Lawrence, Kansas. Like ACI and Coronet, Centron’s bread and butter was churning out educational short films. You know, the often ten-minute-long things Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had to watch at school about various professions, problem -solving situations, ethics, foreign countries, etc. Harvey’s own resume included such classics as ‘Why Study Industrial Arts?’ and ‘Shake Hands with Danger.’ Eventually, however, he got the bug to make a movie.
The inspiration for his magnus opum came, as Harvey put it, when he drove past the ruined Saltair Pavilion/Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City and imagined a parade of ghouls rising out of Great Salt Lake where they proceeded to dance in the pavilion’s main ballroom. He told his friend and screenwriter, John Clifford to write a script any way he wanted, as long as it ended with that scene. The production that followed was almost a clinic on how to make a movie on a minuscule budget. The filmmakers had to go around town in Lawrence asking businessmen to donate to their cause. However, despite the generosity of the locals, the crew had almost no money for special effects or post-production, forcing them to use news-style cameras and guerrilla-filming techniques. (This included paying off- or ‘bribing’- locals in Salt Lake City to let them film in and around certain buildings instead of getting official permits.) Mary’s job as an organist -and the film’s original score, which is entirely organ music- was determined by Clifford’s relationship with executives at an organ-making factory in Lawrence. Harvey- who was also an actor- even played the lead ghoul (‘the Man’) himself to save on the cost of hiring another actor. But despite the gruesome, eye-opening experiences of making a feature for the first time, the biggest- and most unfortunate- shocks were yet to come.
In post-production, some footage of the ghouls approaching the pavilion from the lake was overexposed and lost. Nothing serious. Except…it was only the scene that showed the ghouls walking from Great Salt Lake to the pavilion!!! In other words, the first scene director Harvey thought of and got the whole production off and running was lost, never to see the inside of a cinema. *Sigh* Life isn’t fair. And if you need further proof, try this: the company that Harvey sold the distribution rights to turned out to be a scam job, resulting in a complete loss of all earnings. (Harvey got word while on assignment for Centron in South America.) And just as bad, if not worse, the filmmakers forgot to copyright the original print, making the film public domain from the start and never earning a penny in royalties for its creators.

Now there’s a postscript that’ll leave you terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
The Good…

Watching this film for the first time at a comedy event and in color probably wasn’t the best way to evaluate it. The comedians kept drawing attention to the film’s slowness and repetitiveness. Plus, the colorization (as I later found out), seriously damaged the film’s onscreen appearance. So, I did the right thing: I watched the original black-and-white. It turns out, in some respects, the film is stronger than I anticipated.
Like a classic film noir, ‘CoS’ skillfully uses back and white. The shots of Saltair in the dark are truly menacing. Opened in the 1890’s, the former amusement park had closed several years prior due to a combination of competition and the receding of Great Lake due to droughts. (Hence the chase under the dried-out dock at the end.) The decrepit state of the place, its long, unlit tunnels and rooms, and its massive, shadow-enshrouded main pavilion are the epitome of a former place of fun and happiness having been corrupted and turned evil. At other times, Mary’s face is the only illuminated part of the scene, making it feel as if the darkness is creeping closer and closer towards her. Like her, we want to focus on the light and not see what the darkness may be hiding. (The scene filmed from a roof where Mary looks up from an empty alley between the tall buildings of Salt Lake City and screams, “Why won’t anybody hear MEEE???” is quite unnerving with its shadows and buildup.) Plus, when Mary is invisible to other people, the film seems to blur a little. Later on, I learned that Harvey had tinted the film with a cyan (greenish-blue) color to give the scene a dreamy, ethereal feeling. It’s as though Mary is fading away into her surroundings when this happens, the spirit world pulling her closer and against her will.
And it goes without saying, the white makeup used for the ghouls’ faces is much more effective and death-like in black-and-white.

…and the Bad (There is no Ugly)

However, despite the moody atmosphere the film creates, the plot and characters are quite a letdown. I watched this film with a family member and he figured out the twist before the halfway point. He said it was like a long episode of the ‘Twilight Zone.’ I can see why he thinks that. The filmmakers don’t create enough drama between the characters to hide Mary’s fate.
In fact, the acting is so flat that I completely misinterpreted the movie the first time I saw it. Granted, this was largely because of a joke in the Rifftrax version: when the car is dredged up at the end, comedian Kevin Murphy said, “What? Was this whole thing just one big misdirection?” Well, it fooled me. Instead of being in the real world, I thought the entire story had taken place either in limbo or in Mary’s head before her soul is sucked into the Great Beyond. And, odd as this may seem, this led to me pondering how the story could have been made stronger.

‘Carnival of Souls’ – Rustbelt’s Special Edition

As noted above, the characters are a weak spot for the film. The actors barely emote, often appearing flat on screen and only going through the motions. Many a YouTube critic has undoubtedly chalked this up to filmmakers who specialized in industrial films making a movie that feels like an industrial film. In other words, slavishly following the script, going literally from point to point with little, if any, creativity. But such thoughts are rather insulting to a film that achieves a great amount of atmosphere. And I think I’ve found out the reasons for these shortcomings.

While researching this movie a year ago, I watched an interview with Herk Harvey that explained his original intention: that Mary was a woman who never really ‘lived’ and wasn’t ready to die; thus, after the crash, she fought back against death to try and enjoy life, only to find she no longer could and that her time was up. Kind of like a near-death experience with actual death. Harvey regretted not showing Mary’s life prior to the crash, as the contrast would’ve helped the original story idea.
Another clue came from a print interview with screenwriter John Clifford, who explained his “secret” in writing ‘CoS.’ He said that he deliberately wrote the supporting characters to show no sympathy for Mary, suggesting that they cannot connect to her because she’s no longer part of this world and is an unaware ghost, (or poltergeist, as Harvey called her). Hilligoss’s flat portrayal was supposed to show her newfound inability to connect with a world she no longer belongs in, despite her desires to the contrary. While I admire the intention, I think the effect backfired. It created a host of stale performances that have little to no effect on Mary or the story.

So, I pondered and wondered… “what if?”

What if the pastor and the doctor tried harder to reach Mary? This might go with my original idea that Mary was in limbo. The Man could be the Devil, while the other two could be more angelic, if flawed, figures, trying to pull her back into the light. The pastor could appeal to her spiritually, while the doctor tries to interpret her situation. This might even put Mary in a almost Scrooge-like position. In other words, she would have one last chance to avoid eternal punishment and try for Heaven. Perhaps she not only led an unfulfilled life, she led a self-centered, mean-spirited one which will lead her to the dark corners of the afterlife.
And here’s another wrinkle: I‘ve barely mentioned Linden, the sleazy neighbor. I don’t know why, but when I think of him, I think of Lampwick from ‘Pinocchio.’ Here me out on this. Both are characters who are mired in vices. Obviously, Lampwick meets a terrible punishment for living a life of laziness, lawlessness, and pursuing only hollow pleasures. We can assume, if this were limbo, that Linden is set to meet a similar fate. Both characters also have another thing in common: both are trying to corrupt an innocent, (well, an alleged innocent in Mary’s case). Since both situations could be metaphors for the path to Hell, Linden and Lampwick are essentially damning another while damning themselves. Personally, I think it’s an angle that could’ve worked, with Linden as an unknowing devil’s advocate. What do you think?
(Little Known Fact: Did you know that in the scene in ‘Pinocchio’ where the boat is approaching Pleasure Island, that the island is drawn to resemble the entrance to Hell? Oh, it’s true. It’s based on illustrations from a late 19th/early 20th century copy of the ‘Divine Comedy’ in Walt Disney’s personal artbook collection.)

So, overall…

What is ‘Carnival of Souls?’ A fine example of indie filmmakers making the best use of their limited resources to craft an effective film? An overly-long knockoff episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’, shamelessly padded in lieu of enough script to reach feature film length? A parable about not letting women drive?
I’ll leave you with two takeaways from this film. ‘Carnivals of Souls’, much like the current political scene, deals only in extremes. There is no middle ground. (Hence no ‘Ugly.) What it does right (atmosphere), it does very well. Where it falters (characters), it falls hard. It seems almost all viewers either love it or hate it. And it’s easy to see why this film is both praised and dismissed. Therefore, the best way to decide to just take a look a look at it and decide for yourself. Just head on over to Youtube.

‘Carnival of Souls’

The second is more of an announcement. Next week, we return to our Universal Monster Mash, which means it’s gonna take more than pasty-faced ghouls in funerary prom outfits to scare me. Cause I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
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