Monday, October 31, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #25 - Carnival of Souls (1962, dir. Herk Harvey)

There used to be a Friday night show in Denver called Creature Features. It was essentially a vehicle for a local channel to show low-budget monster flicks. Each week it began with atmospheric footage of ghost towns and cemeteries in the mountains and then a creepy host (Mr. First Nighter) introducing the film. There was nothing really scary about Mr. First Nighter, but I remember whenever that footage of mountain cemeteries would come on I would get scared. I was in my late childhood and not all that experienced with horror, but those weird scenes of deserted, shadowy graves just scared the hell out of me. It was around this time that I was first exposed to Carnival Of Souls. Late night and half-asleep is the way to view this movie. More than anything it is a dark mood piece, which makes up in atmosphere what it lacks in plot. Made in 1962 by an industrial filmmaker, the original idea came to director/star Herk Harvey when he passed the abandoned Salt Air amusement park by the Great Salt Lake on a cross-country trip. The abandoned pavilion is indeed a mysterious sight - kind of a Moorish castle sitting dark and brooding on the shores of this immense inland body of water. He drove home to Lawrence, Kansas and described the scene to an author friend of his who then set about writing a script.

The story itself is somewhat irrelevant. It is the overwhelming mood of dread and fear that pervades every frame of this film that makes it so memorable. The protagonist, Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss) is an attractive young woman who begins the film involved in an illegal drag race that goes wrong and the car she is in plunges over a bridge. Thus ends any normal plot conventions. We have every reason to believe she and everyone else in the car has died, yet Mary emerges from the water dazed and covered in mud. We then learn that she is a church organ player who is relocating to Salt Lake City. As soon as she hits the road, the weirdness begins. She sees a monstrous visage; a chalk white man, disheveled and malevolent, peering in her car window, stalking her. On her way into town she passes the Salt Air pavilion and is fascinated and drawn to the gothic edifice. As the movie hurtles toward its inevitable showdown, Mary sees the chalk-white man and other zombie-like people more and more frequently. It is never clearly stated, but we start to realize that Mary has been in some state between life and death and these terrifying apparitions beckon her to join them in the pavilion for the Carnival Of Souls. Apparently, when you die you go to abandoned amusement parks and participate in pagan dance rituals - kinda makes sense. As I stated, the particulars of the plot are somewhat irrelevant; what makes this movie so special are the beautiful use of light, the well-chosen shooting locations and the ever-present and somewhat remarkable organ score which keeps the viewer on edge the whole time. The overall effect of the movie is a chill that runs down your spine and causes you to look over your shoulder.
By today’s standards there is absolutely nothing scary about this movie. There is no blood, no explicit violence, no bad language - in fact there are really no bad people in this movie; just dead people who leer at Mary and creep her out. Carnival Of Souls asks if there is a place between the shadows of living and dying and answers: yes, there is - it’s just outside Salt Lake City. This is the perfect movie to play at your Halloween party. People will find themselves mysteriously drawn to the screen as the weird images flicker on the screen in glorious black and white.

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