Evening boys and ghouls, here's your horror host with the very least, Kazekage, who like one who walks on a lonely road doth walk in fear and read down to the liquor store, stopping in to drop in a Halloween themed post for you here on the actual day, lest I wait a few more hours and then it's All Saint's Day and everything just feels a bit late and past it and it's all faintly embarrassing somehow.
The movie we're going to talk about tonight is Carnival of Souls, an incredibly strange movie from 1962. It's an annual Halloween tradition to watch it at the House of Thump (the codename for the compound from where this blog emanates, and if you're a longtime reader, you know "emanate" is the right word to describe what we do here) and it's something I've always had a soft spot in my heart for--no least because I think I befriended the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai based on a spirited debate about the virtues of this movie (she thought it was rather dated, and to be fair, I made a poor defence of it) though I think we both enjoyed it's occasional silliness.
If you'd like to follow along, you can watch the movie for free via Youtube (thank heaven for public domain, eh?) It's rather short and won't take up great wodges of your life. For those of you who want to know what you're getting into, here's the trailer:
Man, even back then they gave away pretty much the entirety of the movie.
Anyways, before we get to the actual movie, a little background. Carnival of Souls was the brainchild of Herk Harvey, a man who made his living doing instructional films for the Centron Corporation, and if you're a big Mystery Science Theater 3000/Rifftrax fan, you will know them well. Carnival hovers close to that at times--it all too often veers towards the thudding, earnest blandness of an instructional film in the dialogue scenes (the bits with Mary--our heroine--and the psychiatrist set new speed records for an almost enervating dullness) and everyone looks intensely uncomfortable being on camera and tends to ham things up as a result.
However, Carnival isn't a Manos: The Hands of Fate kind of bad movie. It's actually rather good and eerie in some places, with a plot nicked from an Ambrose Bierce story before that became a thing, and a rather strange dreamlike quality that prizes images more than narrative coherence.
So let's dive right into the movie, shall we? Mary and her friends decide to have a drag race. The first thing you notice , of course, is that none of the drag racers seem to be at or above the age of thirty. Naturally, they pick the ricketiest bridge to drag race on and Mary's car flops off and sinks with all hands.
Or so they think, because Mary, our heroine, wanders up covered in mud and looking a little spacey. She'll look a bit spacey through the whole movie, actually, and you can read that several ways depending on whether you're willing to let it go as a dramatic choice or a comment on the skill of the actress. Mary takes the whole "falling off a bridge" thing like a champ, and doesn't let it break her stride at all. Mary, you see, is a budding church organist in her native Lawrence Kansas and has just received a job offer to go play organ for a church in Utah who has what I consider to be easily the hammiest pastor I ever did see.
One curious side effect of the bridge thing seems to be that Mary's a bit indifferent to everything--playing in a church is just a job to her, and most anything she can take or leave. During her first visit with the pastor she drives by an old pavilion that catches her eye in an eerie sort of way (Mary was the first urban explorer, you see) and suggests to the reverend that they bust in and look around and this is the first inlking that Mary's a little bit of a sociopath.
Fortunately, she's living in the creepiest boarding house in Utah, which should calm her right down. The owner of the house, Mrs. Thomas, who is mind-bogglingly obsessed with people taking hot baths (she's not one to make a fuss about such things, as she tells Mary a dozen times) and Mr. Linden, the other boarder in the house who is pretty unpleasant himself, as we get to know him by making clumsy passes at Mary, drinking a lot, and stealing a peek when she's undressing for the bath (God dammit Mrs. Thomas, every time you mention the baths, it's like you're ringing the dinner bell for him) Mary handles this like a champ, by alternately coming on to him and freaking the hell out around him, which ultimately puts him off, and you must say . . .takes a lot to out-creep a creep, doesn't it?
As an aside, this movie works even better if you just assume that everyone in it is fucking insane. It makes it like Eraserhead before Eraserhead was a thing.
But Mary has her own problems . . .every now and again during her day, she sort of "drops out." The sound seems to fade out and all she can hear is weird organ music (this is also known as "the entire soundtrack of the movie--seriously, the only place you'd hear more organ music was if you camped out at an ice rink) Everyone seems to ignore her. It's like she doesn't exist.
Well, that is, she doesn't exist except for the creepy dude (actually the director) who seems to appear and disappear and gets ever closer to her. This leads to the bits of the movie that are very effective indeed--the surreal, dreamlike, scenes that really kick in right here at the middle of the movie:
Man, the preacher losing his shit at the end of that clip is just awesome, as is Mary acting catatonic. This movie slips so neatly between striking images and unintentional comedy so easily, which is probably a reason why I love it so.
Things go downhill for Mary after that, and she proceeds to get weirder and weirder to the point where even Linden decides there's too much crazy in them drawers to justify the effort involved, and he finally gives her the broom. So Mary spends a little more screentime freaking the hell out and finally returns to the pavilion one final time, wherein the shocking secret (OK, if you've read the wiki thing or seen the movie by now, it's not so secret and probably not shocking) of the whole movie is revealed. Oh, and someone who's supposed to be dead blinks on camera. Once you see it, like the arrow in the FedEx logo, you can't un-see it.
I cannot, in all good conscience say that Carnival of Souls is a good movie. I will say, however, that it's one of my favourites, as somehow even its flaws--the wooden/hammy acting, the unlikeable lead, the somewhat meandering plot--really add to the dreamlike ambiance of the piece. The scenes that work the best--the ghouls coming out of the water, the ghouls on the bus, the odd dancing scene at the end, while a little mannered today, really stick in the mind and point the way towards later movies like Night of the Living Dead a few years later.
It is, however, entertaining for what it is--a very odd strange little film that seems to be several things but also it's own thing at the same time. I do rather like its goofy earnestness and somewhat effective moments of atmosphere (it makes excellent use of black-and-white photography to give certain scenes a real desolation and coldness), and it's well worth a look if you're curious as to what horror was like pre-Night of the Living Dead (which made it a little more OK to be gory) but after the horror waves of the 40's and 50's.
Or, if you just like to see preachers lose their shit when the organist goes off script.