Carnival of Souls (1962)
While I'll freely admit to being an amateur reviewer, I do watch crappy b-movies for fun (and by "fun" I mean, "mindless hobby to keep the soul-raping internal demons spawned by 21 years working at Wal-mart at bay...") and I know a "standard b-movie title" when I see one. "Carnival of Souls" just screams shitty low-budget stinker horror flick, and the sensationalist, gaudy marquee posters that pop up on google searches do little to give you hope that this is anything other than the cinematic equivalent of a urine-soaked homeless man on fire. But, much to my surprise, Carnival of Souls turned out to be pretty darned good in almost every respect. Sure, the budget was paltry, but whoever scripted this one knew how to write good dialogue and the director definitely had an understanding of quality camera work and shot selection. I've said this a million times before, but the difference between a great movie and a lousy movie is often a matter of how good your post-production editing is (or lack thereof). Carnival of Souls was cut extremely well, with a-movie results on a b-movie budget, and it makes the film a surprising pleasure to watch.
All that said, we here at MMT can always find something to complain about, am I right? I mean, I once threw eggs at an elementary school fall festival play, and Pam, if the police reports are to be believed, once stabbed an elderly Buddhist monk over his wholly inadequate butterfly collection. So, clearly, we are completely impossible to please and can find fault in nearly everything if we put our devious minds to it.
Anyway, our movie opens in sleepy cowpoke Lawrence, Kansas in 1962. Full disclosure: I lived in Lawrence from '98 to '00 and rather loved it, especially the local ska music scene and tasty Yellow Sub sandwiches. However, there were a lot of douchey frat boys there during my time, and, judging from this movie, there were just as many slumming around in 1962. We see a roadster-load of them challenge a trio of sorority girls to a drag race across a rickety wooden bridge, just because frat boys suck. You can guess where this is going, as the girls' car goes careening into the muddy river below.
Rock Chalk Jayhawk, baby!
This will not end well.
The lone survivor is a frazzled, overwhelmed co-ed named Mary, who stumbles out of the river three hours after the accident with no memory of what happened or how she survived (dumdumdum!). Mary, who will be our movie's lead, is played by no one you have ever heard of or seen before, but the actress does a very impressive job of portraying a woman who is both terrified of life and of death and unsure why she can't be enjoying either one. To this movie's credit, Mary is on-screen for a vast majority of the running time, allowing us time to get to know her well enough that we actually care what happens to her as the show goes along. This is a common problem in movies of all budgets and stripes, that the director demands we care about characters who we are not given any chance to get to know before they are murdered or married or abducted by Reptilian Gray Aliens. Bonus points for Mary being pretty cute (if scrawny).
This experience will change anyone.
She cleans up nice.
Mary is an organist by profession. And, no, that doesn't mean she's a porn star, that means she plays one of those monstrous multi-piped beasts that lurk in the corners of every Lutheran church ever built. Throughout this movie somber organ music plays on the soundtrack, and while it gets a tad annoying at times, it does fit the overall spooky and mysterious nature of the plot. Negative points for the actress not really being able to play the organ more than "pound the keys at random" (saved by post-pro editing again).
That's a lot of pipes.
Mary takes a job playing organ in a small church in rural Utah, as far away culturally from Lawrence, Kansas as it is geographically. We get the hint, however, that Mary is looking for a fresh start after the accident that killed her friends, and frontier Utah fills that bill nicely. So she gets in her car and drives across the country. Along the way, one dark and stormy night, she is visited by the spectral apparition of a pale-faced zombie ghoul man, whose mute visage appears fleetingly in window reflections and murky headlight shadows. Mary, showing more fortitude that you'd expect, shakes all this off as tricks of light and weariness and keeps driving.
Check out that monsterhuge 1950's Chevy steering wheel, it's like three feet across.
AAAHHH!!!! Now she knows how Shatner felt on that late night plane flight...
She arrives in her new town and settles into her boarding house room. The landlady is an absent-minded spinster, but she's kind to Mary and likes to make her coffee. Mary meets her boss (the pastor) at the church and they hit it off. All seems to be going well for Mary in her new life, but the ghostly face still haunts her from time to time, leaving her on edge and nervous. This is effectively shown, often without the need for dialogue, and it's hard not to really get into the mystery here, which is already giving us a moody, twisty David Lynch sort of vibe.
She's like Aunt Bea from Mayberry.
With a face like that, he's has to be a priest!
The pastor also takes her out to a local amusement park, long since closed and fenced off. This abandoned ruin, with its overgrown lots and ramshackle boardwalk leading to a colossal cathedral-type big tent pavilion, is tailor made for horror movies. It's been said that this film's director saw this place while driving cross-country and just knew he had to film a movie here. Mary wants to investigate the ruins, but the Pastor talks her out of it.
Burned down in 1970, rebuilt in 1981, Panic! at the Disco played there in 2005, 'nuf said.
Because this is a b-movie at heart, despite all the positive words I've written about it already, it's no surprise that we get an insert scene with Mary naked in the bathtub. It's censor-friendly, of course, but it still bugs me that they felt the need to have Mary strip down for no other reason than she's pretty and that's what pretty girls do in b-movies. As she towels herself off, there's a knock at her door, but it's not her landlady, it's someone else. Who is it? I'll let Pam tell you...
Keep your boobs out of frame!
Nobody most women would want to see, Nate. It's her slimy little jerk of a neighbor, John Linden. John also rents a room at the boarding house, and he's decided it's time for him to drop by and introduce himself to Mary. Mary was expecting her landlady, so she answers the door in nothing but a towel, and she has a hard time shoving him away from the door so she can put on a housecoat. Oddly, though, she doesn't shut the door completely, and John leers at her as he watches her through the gap between the hinged side of the door and the doorframe. Mary might just have been too flustered to shut the door, because she seems very prim and bashful as she firmly declines John's invitation to dinner.
See the door? That's fantastic shot framing, illustrates the divide between these two better than any spoken words.
Once John has been pushed out the door, Mary seems to have remembered something she forgot, and she goes out into the hall and starts down the steps (still in her housecoat and slippers). Whatever she was going to do is interrupted by the sight of the ghostly face she's seen before, only now it's an entire ghostly man. He walks off as she runs back to her room and locks the door. When questioned, her landlady firmly denies that there's anybody in the house but herself, Mary, and John. However, when Mary continues to insist she saw another man, the landlady starts acting nervous. Is there really somebody else living in the house, or is the landlady just afraid of burglars? Or could it be poor acting, as that's always a possibility in B-movies?
The ghoulish man (he freaks me out).
Mary is very shaken up, and that night she has trouble sleeping. She gets up in the middle of the night and looks out of her bedroom window, and we see she is staring at the silhouette of the abandoned amusement park. However, with the dawn comes a new day and a new Mary -- and John, who knocks at her door with a pot of coffee and a couple of mugs in hand, and a bottle of something stronger in his pocket. Mary's attitude toward John has done a complete 180 since last night. When she answers the door, she's friendly, rather flirtatious in fact, and she invites John in and accepts a mug of coffee, although she does decline the booze. John, who is rather a dim bulb, doesn't seem to notice the change in her attitude. Could it just be that she's a morning person? Mary makes a point of telling John that even though she's a church organist, she regards it as just a job, and she herself is not religious. John finds this a little odd, but he's more interested in thinking up things he and Mary can do together after hours. He finally gets a little too suggestive, and Mary escorts him out the door, but she still acts flirtatious enough to leave him with some hope, and she's smiling as she locks the door.
He's creepy and she's psycho, but they do have some chemistry (even if it's corrosive to them both in the end).
Mary has the day off, and she decides to spend it shopping for some new clothes. Her fun is somewhat spoiled when she goes into the dressing room and spooky music begins to play. We just know something scary is going to happen, and we think we know what it is when she can't get the dressing room door open. No, after a few pushes, it opens. So where's the scary stuff? We find out when she goes back into the dress department and nobody seems to see or hear her. She can't seem to hear anything, either. We see people's lips move but can't hear them say anything, and when she leaves the store, somebody is using a jackhammer on the sidewalk, but there's no sound. Finally we hear the sound of birds chirping as she walks through a park. Mary seems relieved, but her bad day isn't over yet, for when she stoops to get a drink of water from a drinking fountain she looks up and sees the ghostly man. She panics and runs but is caught by another man, and when she turns to look at the ghostly man, she sees another man wearing a similar suit.
Get that poor girl a cheeseburger!
She likes birds.
The man who caught the hysterical Mary is Dr. Samuels, possibly a psychiatrist, who offers to take Mary to his office to try to find out what's wrong with her. She tells him her story and says she thinks the ghostly man is following her, but Dr. Samuels tells her firmly that this isn't possible, because no one else saw him. Dr. Samuels, in fact, is almost harsh with her. What good this discussion is doing Mary is questionable, because Dr. Samuels finally admits he's not a psychiatrist and really doesn't know what is going on with her, but he insists that the ghostly man is a figment of her imagination. He thinks it was triggered by the trauma of her accident and somehow associated with the derelict amusement park (even though she saw the ghostly man before she ever saw the amusement park?) This prompts Mary to decide to visit the amusement park, and she refuses to be talked out of it. She also mentions offhandedly that she really doesn't feel the need for any connection with other people.
Did he even go to medical school? I don't think so.
I'm getting curious about that amusement park myself and I'm glad she's going, although I have to agree with the pastor and say it's most certainly not safe to go inside. Not because of ghostly men that might be lurking in it, but because abandoned buildings deteriorate very quickly and there's the danger of falling through a floor or having a ceiling collapse on you. Plus there could be all-too-real homeless people who've taken shelter inside and get angry when they're disturbed.
Mary's ok with homeless men, she just doesn't like people with suntans and bar-b-que grills.
However, Mary is undeterred, and since the fence around it is in as bad a shape as the park itself, she gets inside with no difficulty. I wonder, were they really allowed to film inside the amusement park? I wasn't kidding about how dangerous it would be, although the structures we see in the movie do appear to be in decent shape, so maybe it hadn't been empty for very long when the movie was made. I can't imagine something like this would be permitted today, but safety was much less of an issue in 1962, so it's possible that Herk Harvey, the man who made this movie, was told that he could do it at his own risk. It's possible, too, that he filmed only in areas where it was safe.
That looks like fun...if you are seven and have never owned a Nintendo Wii.
Mary walks all over the park, still wearing the dress and high heels she wore to go shopping. I'm always impressed by how women in old movies could walk for long distances over all sorts of surfaces without stumbling or showing any signs of pain, but I suppose when you've worn high heels most of the time for all your adult life, as women used to do, you get used to it. She walks for so long that the sequence starts to get boring, because the areas she goes through are just large empty buildings with nothing spooky about them. Finally, though, something spooky: Mary leans against a railing near a pool of water, and we see the ghostly man in the water. However, Mary apparently doesn't, because she calmly turns and walks away.
That's some spooky shit right there.
She must have given up, because we see her next back at the boarding house, with John hitting on her again. She's cooler toward him than she was in the morning, and even the less-than-bright John notices the difference. He doesn't give up, though, and finally she relents enough to agree to go out with him for a late dinner, after she finishes practicing the organ in church. Nate is right about the actress not being able to play the organ, and this time we aren't allowed to see Mary's hands on the keys at all. We do, however, see her hands when she briefly removes them from the keys and stares at them, seemingly in disbelief. After that she resumes playing, but we hear no sounds, and she seems to be back in that state in which she hears nothing. Now we do see her hands, but she's stroking the keys more than pressing them, which looks peculiar. Next there is an extended sequence of images flashing by, including several of the ghostly man. He approaches Mary and puts his hands over hers on the organ keys, and -- it's the pastor, who it seems objects to the music she was playing, which must not have been hymns. In fact, he finds it so objectionable that he fires Mary. I'm wondering what music could have been that bad (stripper music? Rock'n'roll?), but he doesn't go into detail about what it was.
Bare ankles! Bare ankles! In 1962! Oh the humanity!
"The RIAA called, they want their royalty check."
Poor Mary walks out without saying a word, and doesn't really seem to be fully awake. She's met at the church door by the lecherous John, who doesn't notice anything different about her, but I suspect he's not that interested in her personality anyway. He takes her to a noisy restaurant where couples are dancing to jukebox music, but Mary just sits at the table looking glum. No, "glum" is too mild a word, she looks like she's at the funeral of her dearest friend. Judging by the bottles on the table, John has been drinking the whole time they've been there, and he's getting grumpy, not that I blame him too much, because that look on Mary's face would ruin anybody's mood. After John complains about her attitude, Mary revives enough to tell him she really wants to be with him, at which statement he predictably smirks and suggests they go back to the boarding house.
John is quite the catch, eh, ladies?
Back at the boarding house, John is amorous but so drunk he can barely make it upstairs. He generously offers to stay with Mary that night so she won't be alone, but Mary's mood has changed yet again. She thinks she'd rather be alone, and when John follows her into her room and starts kissing her, she sees the ghostly man reflected in the mirror instead of John. She (not unreasonably) screams and starts babbling about the mysterious man. It finally dawns on John that there's something wrong with Mary, and despite still another mood swing in which Mary begs him to stay, he bolts from the room. And with that, I'll let Nate have another go at this movie.
He's not getting any nookie tonight.
Thanks, Pam. Before I go on, let's talk about Candace Hilligoss, the fair-skinned leggy 27-year old actress playing the doe-eyed immensely-put-upon Mary. With her goose-like neck and ever-arching eyebrows, all so lovingly showcased in innumerable close-ups during this movie, Hilligoss has a distinctive and appealing look that you can't easily forget. And yet, we have forgotten her, though, it seems, by her own choice. After this movie she pretty much dropped off into a black void, popping up only briefly in a couple of weak b-horror movies before completely fading away in the late 1960s. She's still alive, and by accounts still a striking woman, but she seems to have stepped away from mainstream acting at a tragically young age, when, judging solely from her work in Carnival of Souls, she had great potential. I assume she had her reasons, most likely children and family pressure, but it's still a shame that such a classic and memorable beauty has such a slim body of work.
She does "scared eyes" better than most actresses I've seen.
Anyway, when we last saw Mary she had just been shot down by Rico Suave John for being a little bit too psycho even for his tastes. She takes her anger out on her furniture, rearranging it all night long like a mad-as-a-hatter Martha Stewart to keep the nightmares away. The next morning, the ever-suspicious Doctor Samuels comes by to check on her and he comes downstairs to tell the landlady that, "She's a strange one." Mary has had it with Utah, she curls her hair one last time, she packs her suitcase, she ditches on the week's rent, and she gets the hell out of Dodge.
"And I stole the towels, too."
But she doesn't get far as her Chevy Biscayne's tranny is shot (probably because Suzie...I mean, Mary keeps backing up, then shifting into drive before the car has come to a complete stop, just shredding the teeth on the transmission, no matter how many times I tell her not to). She finds a greaseball mechanic's shop and the guy puts it up on the lift. When Mary asks to stay in the car, he says sure and lets her ride up in the car while he checks out the undercarriage. Somewhere in Maryland, an OSHA safety expert is screaming in agony at this scene...
And she's not even wearing her seat belt!
However, Mary gets spooked by a strange visitor to the garage and runs off. Once on the city streets, everything goes blurry for a second and suddenly Mary is in that "limbo state" again where no one can hear or see her. Freaked out, she runs around from building to building, trying desperately to get anyone to notice her. There's some great camerawork here, as they film her from various angles that highlight her isolation, even on the busy streets. I'd also like to note how fast the actress can run across broken pavement and up narrow stairs in 4 inch heels. Seriously, rewind and just watch that girl run in those pumps, it's like she's wearing flats, she's that good (Pam was right, women in the '60s were tough as nails).
She even has to sprint to avoid being run down by a van, in a scene that really looked dangerous to the actress.
After fleeing a busload of ghoulish zombies (that gave me the willies), she ends up in the park. There the chirping of birds brings her back into the "realm of the living" and she can hail a cab now. She goes immediately to Doctor Samuels' office and laments that she "doesn't belong in this world" and realizes now that "something" is trying to "take her back from the living". Then we get what is perhaps the only frustratingly b-movie-quality moment of the movie as they throw us a predictable and telegraphed jumping cat scare shot as the Doctor turns around in his chair to reveal he's the ghoul man who has been stalking her all movie long. I don't know why this cheap scare trick bothered me so, but it did and I wish I could say it didn't knock some points off the movie for me.
You can do better, movie, don't disappoint me again.
Mary screams and suddenly she's back in her car in the mechanic's garage (huh, so that was all a dream?). She drives in a frazzled frenzy to the creepy abandoned amusement park and walks right in. The lights come on and suddenly there are dozens of zombie ghouls in ball dresses and suit coats dancing by the carousel. Mary watches this surreal scene with a mix of horror and stunned silence, as the ghouls twirl and sway around her to a pounding pipe organ tune. Then she sees that the woman dancing with Doctor Samuels Ghoul is, in fact, an undead version of herself, which pushes her right off the cliff into total insanity.
Zombie dance party, baby!
Mary flees in a panic and the ghouls all chase her merrily. She runs out onto the salt flat beyond the park, hotly pursued by the skipping and giggling ghouls, who, for some reason, seem to be toying with her. Why the undead seem to be so happy, like trippy hippy potheads at a Phish concert, is not really explained, and it kinda sucks some of the dramatic energy out of the climax for me. Mary stumbles, she does down in the salty mud, she's screams, the end is near. The ghouls catch her and close in around her, blocking our view as the scene ends.
Her last sight.
Back to Lawrence, Kansas now (perhaps back in time as well) as we see that searchers have finally found the sunken car and towed it back to shore. And as the screen fades to black, we see that in it are the three dead girls, including Mary. She was dead all along, of course, just trapped in a sort of purgatory between dead and alive, until the dead came to take her across the line. But you knew that already, didn't you? Because you've seen The Sixth Sense and you've seen that last season of Lost and you could see the clues from the first moment Mary stumbled out of the Kansas River back in scene one. But audiences in 1962 probably didn't figure it out that quickly, and they surely didn't have a wealth of cultural talking points to back up their guesses even if they did. As Pam mentioned when we were first discussing doing this review, Carnival of Souls plays out like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and that's a compliment. At its best, generally in the first couple of seasons, Serling's little box of mysteries always gave the viewer something unexpected and spooky. And, in the final analysis, Carnival of Souls was unexpected and (seriously damn) spooky in 1962, and, in my opinion, has aged pretty well in the fifty years since then.
Dead girl seal of approval.
So, that's that, then... Pam, do you have any closing thoughts on this one?
Thanks, Nate. Despite its limited budget and unknown actors, this movie was light-years ahead of most of the b-movies MMT reviews. However, there's a reason: It wasn't made by amateurs. Herk Harvey, the man who directed this movie, had a lot of experience in making movies, some of which you may have seen. He spent most of his career making training films. I know this sounds less than exciting, but it does mean he knew how to make a decent movie with a clear, coherent plot, on a limited budget, in a limited amount of time, with less-than-A-list actors. Plus, the actors who played the two main characters, Mary and John, were well-trained even though they made only a few movies. Candace Hilligoss, the actress who played Mary, studied acting with Strasberg, and Sidney Berger, the actor who played John, taught acting for many years. So go ahead and watch this movie, it's well worth your time.
Written in August 2011 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.
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