A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 458 – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962) – June 1st, 2011

It’s been an interesting evening here. We live in an area that’s more known for hurricanes than tornadoes. There’ve been some bitty ones here and there, not big enough to cause any serious harm, but nothing big enough to cause real damage in decades. Until today, when one touched down a little ways away from us and then continued to make appearances as it made its way in our direction. So! We had a tornado warning all evening and some nasty thunderstorms coming through and we were a little worried about power outages and, you know, having to hide in our basement. Therefore we picked something short that we’d seen before so we could pause if we needed to and hopefully finish it before the storms hit us too hard.

We did end up having to pause a few times to check the weather and we did take a break when the thunder and lightning got so intense that we wanted to know what was going on, but this isn’t a tough movie to follow. It’s got a fairly simple plot and a small cast and it’s not going to throw you for too wide a loop here. That’s not to say it’s a bad story. It’s just simple and simply told. We begin the movie seeing a drag race and a car with three young women going off the side of a bridge into a river. Over two hours later one of the women emerges from the river, seemingly unharmed. Young Mary Henry dries off and apparently goes on with her life, moving out of town to take a job as a church organist in another town. But something is amiss. Mary has periods where the world recedes from her. Sounds are muted and no one around her acknowledges her presence. And then there’s the ghoulish figure she sees every so often. A man with sunken eyes and a pale complexion. Someone no one else sees. Clearly something is very wrong.

In her new town Mary takes a room in a boarding house with only one other lodger, a somewhat overbearing man named John Linden. But the landlady seems nice enough and Mary makes a decent first impression on her new boss at the church. Then again, she’s also fascinated by an old concert pavilion out by a local lake. It’s been abandoned for ages and has fallen into disrepair and something about it beckons to Mary. I think you can probably figure out where this movie is going at this point. It’s not subtle and while maybe at the time it was made it wasn’t obvious what was going on, now? It’s pretty clear. I don’t know if it was even that much of a twist in 1962, but the thing is, it doesn’t need to be a twist. The point of the movie isn’t so much the twist. It’s seeing Mary’s growing detachment from the real world and her realization of what’s happened and happening to her.

Much of this movie depends upon star Candace Hilligoss as Mary. Her character is set forth as somewhat cold and unfriendly, but not unpleasant. She simply doesn’t have any need for boyfriends or socializing or really any of the things most people seem to thrive on. And the movie doesn’t make it very clear whether this is because of the accident or if it’s just how she’s always been. We don’t get to know Mary at all before the accident since the accident is the beginning of the movie. I go back and forth on this. She states outright that she’s never been interested in having a boyfriend and she goes back and forth when talking to Linden. He’s obviously interested, but she’s not. Not romantically, anyhow. But she’s also somewhat disdainful of company and sociability, which I’d be fine with as a long-term personality trait since I’m largely an introvert myself. Then again, she does crave company when things start getting too strange for her. She doesn’t want to be alone so much when she’s seen the strange man who keeps appearing, or had the whole world ignore her for a while. So it could well be just how she’s always been.

Then again, part of the movie’s story revolves around how Mary realizs she doesn’t quite belong in the real world anymore. So it would also follow that after the accident she might well have started to pull away from the world even as it pulled away from her. And if that was the intent, I really quite like it. I just wish it was a little clearer either way. Because either way would work for me, but there’s not much development to it. It just is how she is. That being said, I still like the character. She’s interesting and I like Hilligoss’ portrayal of her, which may not be the strongest performance I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly enough to carry this movie. There’s not much more to be said about most of the people around her. Linden’s a bit of a lech, the minister’s a one-note character, the landlady’s sweet and concerned about Mary but that’s about it. Mary sees a psychiatrist, but he’s just convinced that her problems are trauma-related from the accident and that’s all there is there. So it’s up to Mary.

Now, it should be said that this is a low budget movie. It’s pretty obvious, given a lot of the techniques used to work around what the budget couldn’t pay for. What dialogue is present is clearly ADR and there are vast stretches of the movie where there isn’t any sound or what sound is there is muffled or just birdsong or the like. Now, I don’t know if the muted sound came first and was then written in as part of the plot or if it was intentional and had the bonus of being a money saver, but it’s a well done trick regardless because it does suit the plot quite well. Having the story mostly be a character piece focused on Mary and what she’s going through means that there wasn’t a need for a huge cast of people with lots of lines. Both saving in sound editing and in paying actors. And really, I think it all works. I can see how it could have been improved in places, but it all comes together quite nicely even with the budget it had. And given how many horrible low budget films we’ve seen, that’s saying something. Take The Creeping Terror, for example. That movie’s actually missing half its dialogue and it doesn’t compensate nearly as well. It’s also got some piss-poor acting. So this movie’s got a big leg up on that.

It’s not a big flashy movie with lots of special effects. By today’s standards it’s rather quaint. But it does manage to have an eerie quality to it that enhances the story. Filming at the dilapidated Saltair pavilion was a fantastic idea and using the soundtrack to add to the disconnect from reality that Mary experiences is a fantastic touch. It’s never going to be a great movie and I did enjoy Mike Nelson’s commentary on it (which is why we own this – special edition signed by Mike and everything), but it’s something a lot more special than your typical low budget horror/thriller from the early 1960s.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Carnival of Souls

June 1, 2011

Carnival of Souls

This is in our collection because I couldn’t resist buying the limited edition signed by Michael Nelson. I bought it for his commentary track, but I actually respect it as a movie and awful lot. It doesn’t really deserve the derision that an association with MST3K (however tenuous) might imply. As I write this review I am somewhat reminded of my April Fool’s Day review for Manos. I reviewed Manos as the movie that I think the film makers wanted to make, but most of what I said then actually does apply to this movie.

This is one of the shortest movies in our collection (we watched it tonight because we were flipping back and forth to local tornado warnings and wanted to be able to evacuate quickly to our basement if we had to) and the plot is remarkably simple. Young organist Mary Henry is the only survivor of a tragic car accident. When she and some friends while out one afternoon have an ill advised drag race with some guys in a car they plunge off a bridge and into icy water. Three hours later rescue crews find Mary staggering onto land. She quickly picks up her life as though nothing had happened and drives to Salt Lake City, Utah where she gets a job as an organist in a quaint church.

Things are slightly off for Mary though. She has trouble forming friendships with people in her new home. She keeps seeing a mysterious pale man who seems to be following her and watching her. She becomes obsessed with an abandoned vacation spot. There’s something disturbingly off about her life and in addition to her mysterious stalker she also has these odd moments where she becomes strangely disconnected from the world, unable to interact with people at all.

What impresses me most about this movie is how effective it is at making the most of its micro budget. For example: this movie has one of those clear signs of an under-budgeted film from the sixties – it has missing audio on huge sections of the movie. In some of my favorite MST episodes, like Creeping Terror or Beast of Yucca Flats, the lack of a soundtrack results in hilarious work arounds. Creeping Terror has a narrator who explains what dialog we’re missing as people talk on screen. Hilarious! Beast of Yucca Flats may be the only movie I’ve ever seen where you never see an actor’s lips moving. Roger Corman (infamously bad director of Beast) uses constant tricks like filming the back of actors’ heads or filming from far enough away that we can’t tell that the all-dubbed dialog doesn’t match at all. Carnival of Souls starts out feeling a little Yucca Flatsish – the opening scenes are entirely filled with dialog recorded, poorly, in post production. It doesn’t always sync up with the actor’s mouths. It’s unintentionally funny, but this movie actually USES that detriment.

The scenes where Mary completely loses touch with the world have no soundtrack except for the echoed sound of her own voice and the sound of her shoes on the pavement. It’s creepy and intense and cool and probably wouldn’t have come about in a well funded movie. This movie is full of such creepy and clever moments. When Mary first sees the mysterious man who is haunting her he is outside the passenger window of her moving car. It’s an awesome moment. The abandoned summer spot that she becomes obsessed with and seems called back to is evocative of lost moments in life, and according to the trivia I saw it only cost fifty dollars to film there for a whole week. At every turn this movie takes its very low budget nature and makes it work to improve the psychological impact and the mood of the whole piece.

I also love Candace Hilligoss as Mary. She’s so great at looking out of place and she has a quite disturbing vacant stare that is used to great effect. She has a great character arc as well. At the start of the film Mary is all confidence and strength – a woman so sure of herself that she doesn’t really need anybody else. As the film goes on she becomes more and more desperate to form some human connection (even reaching out to her slimy and greasy neighbour.) When things reach their inevitable conclusion (and I wouldn’t call it a twist so much as a reveal) it becomes clear just why she has been so tortured and disconnected since the accident.

This film is just plain cool. It’s a supernatural psychological thriller filmed for a fraction of a percent of a normal movie budget. It’s an accomplishment in film making and it’s also pretty compelling in its own right. I see from IMDB that that there have been two remakes – one in 1998 and one in 2008. I have to think that somebody missed the point of what makes this movie so great. It’s not a film that could be made better if it just had some better known actors and a bigger budget. It’s a movie that perfectly captures a feeling of disconnection from the world and a film that almost revels in the restrictions that are imposed on it. I will say, however, that I had forgotten before watching this again tonight just how much constant organ music was in it.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment