Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Stranger Among the Living

Every now and then you just need a change of pace. Such was what happened at this last movie night, where we decided to watch the original Carnival of Souls, which is an actual GOOD movie. Completely unlike most of the stuff we watch at our weekly get-togethers. It's a movie I alone in our group had seen, like so many of the films we watch, but what're you gonna do? At the very least this is allowing me an opportunity to rewatch films I probably wouldn't normally get around to.

I first saw Carnival Of Souls a few years back, at 4am, alone in my apartment, and it made quite an impression as it left me deeply unsettled. It's one of those movies that I've since recommended to any horror fan that I come across, and sitting down to watch it with friends I was initially worried that I had hyped it up too much; both to friends and in my own mind. I was worried that the film would come out as a hokey product of the sixties, unscary and fairly square in it's attempts at surreal horror. I was, then, pleasantly surprised to find the movie just as effective as I remembered, and equally enjoyed by my friends. It's always an important part of any movie watching experience that the group around you enjoys it just as much as you do. A large part of my enjoyment the second time around came whenever I'd notice someone jump or shiver. No small feat for a slow moving movie with none of the hallmarks of what constitutes a horror movie these days(IE: no quick edits, loud musical cues or gore).

The thing that sticks with you after watching this movie is it's moody, dreamlike quality throughout, helped by it's soundtrack, which would probably be grating to anyone who doesn't like organ music. Aside from being a mood setter, the music serves a practical purpose as well, since the heroin, Mary Henry(Candace Hilligoss), is an organist for a local church(although her hand movements never seem to match up to what we hear). When we first meet her she's in a car with 2 female friends, drag racing. An accident on a bridge sends the car into a river and leaves her the only survivor. We don't get to see anything of her life before the crash, but we can assume the accident plays a large part in why she seems so antisocial and dislocated from people around her. It can also be assumed that it plays the same part in why she has chosen to leave her hometown and move somewhere else.

In this new town, Mary tries to start her life over, renting a room from a slightly loony old lady and getting a job in a new church. Far from solving anything, Mary Henry's problems become much worse in her new surroundings. She finds herself falling into weird states where she is literally disconnected from the world around her; unable to hear or communicate with other people. She's also plagued by visions of a ghoulish man and an abandoned carnival just outside of town where dead drowning victims(subtext alert!) rise to dance.

The dislocation sequences, while both eery and unsettling, serve to reinforce the theme of avoidance and misanthropy; traits Mary exhibits at every turn. She's sarcastic and dismissive of every person who approaches her. Perhaps the person who gets the worst of this is John Linden(Sidney Berger, whose only other film credit is the in-name-only remake of this film), her neighbor across the hall. It's hard to feel too bad for him, because he is a slimeball who seems to want nothing more than to get into Mary's skirts, but she does treat him pretty badly. Their first meeting is brief, as she shoves him quickly away from her door. However, the next morning, after some scares in the night, she eagerly invites him in when he arrives with coffee. At first she's grasping out for human contact, but watch how her humor only REALLY improves as she insults and mocks him without his knowing. She may not be the most respectable female character in movies, but Mary Henry is a more fully realized and layered person than one would expect from a horror movie of this era, in a genre not exactly known for it's realistic portrayal of women.

There's a twist at the end that I wont spoil, though it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's watched many Twilight Zone episodes, but I just try and imagine what seeing it would have been like in 1962. Even if you discount the ending, though, the film remains a creepily effective gem, with some great, spooky cinematography and intriguing camera angles. It's made all the more impressive when you see that the director's previous(and many of his subsequent) works were all educational/industrial films such as 'Why Study Home Economics?', 'Exchanging Greetings and Introductions', and 'To Touch a Child'. Don't worry, that last one isn't about pedophilia, it's about changing kid's lives through after school activities. Again, not about pedophilia.

This film's reputation has been built up by hardcore horror aficionados over the years due to an urban legend surrounding the lead actress Candace Hilligoss. It was said that appearing in this film scarred her so badly she quit showbiz and was sent to a mental institution. While it's true that she only has one film credit AFTER Carnival of Souls, she remained a stage actress, and even jump started the godawful remake, although her actual input was never actually used for the movie. You can read a fairly informative(if you've seen both movies) and frank interview with her here.

There's a bunch of cheap versions of this movie floating around, since the movie has fallen into the public doman, and the quality isn't that bad as far as those things go. I would suggest watching it that way first, since you can probably buy it for not much more than the price of a rental, but if you like it, I suggest you go for the pricier, far superior Criterion edition, which is not only a cleaner print, but longer by about 5 minutes.

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