Monday, December 4, 2017

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Three hours after my car fell into the river,
I emerge covered in bottom silt. Now forget about that!

Carnival of Souls (1962) Criterion Collection via FilmStruck pay streaming subscription for film buffs. 3 Salmon out of 5. (In terms of Salmon per Buck, an easy 5.) Criterion includes lots of extras on "The Movie that Wouldn't Die," including the filmmakers' corporate video for Phillips 66.

Some Ordinary Folks Want to Do Something Extraordinary

What would you do with $13,000 and three weeks?

If you worked for for a Lawrence, Kansas industrial motion picture production company in 1962, you would start producing a 35mm feature film. (The film ultimately cost $33,000, which still wouldn't keep David Lynch in cigarettes, coffee and quinoa.)

No, you wouldn't. Neither would the Bear.

But Director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford did. The pair worked for Centron Corporation. Herk directed movies for companies like Phillips 66 about sales meetings, and John was writing advertising copy, with one published novel to his credit. Driving back from LA, Herk passed something that took hold of his imagination.

It was the ruins of a once famous resort on the Great Salt Lake of Utah that had been left high and dry by the receding waters. Investors added carnival attractions, which only made it creepier when it was finally abandoned to the elements and vandals. Herk just knew he had to make a movie on the location. All he needed was a script. That was no problem. In three weeks buddy John Clifford knocked out a tale in his spare time of the lone survivor of a car that plunged into the Kansas River.

The Bear exceeded his word quota today, so he deserved a guilty pleasure. And he even has words left over for the Woodland Creatures.

Making the Most of Pretty Much Nothing

Bear will be haunted by
Candace Hilligoss' eyes
for a while.
They found a pretty good actress in Candace Hilligoss, who was studying the Strasberg Method Acting technique in the same class as Marilyn Monroe and Roy Scheider. Closer to home they found a gem in local drama student Sidney Berger.

Nobody else in the movie can act, which only adds to the psychologically off-kilter feel of the movie.

Actually, they can act. Badly, but each in a different way from the others. Each local gives it his or her all in their very own awful way that could not have worked better if it had been planned. (To be fair to the actors, they live down to some bad dialogue, but it doesn't matter.)

Why is the Bear wasting your precious time on a B-movie horror film? Because it inspires him.

This was a no-hit wonder for all concerned. No one went on to make a career in feature films. But a couple of journeyman filmmakers for corporate America knew what they were doing. With a production crew of six and a lot of guerilla filmmaking techniques, they kept it cheap by using what they had in skillful and creative ways.

For the scene when Candace Hilligoss is changing in the department store dressing room, they all walked into a Salt Lake City department store and said they would like to shoot a movie. The natural question is "when?" The answer was right now. (One story is they paid a saleswoman $25 to get a man with a camera in the dressing room with Hilligoss.)

They dreamed of art, and came close enough. (Herk Harvey was inspired by French director Jean Cocteau.) An aspiring filmmaker could learn a lot by studying what has become a cult classic.

The Criterion Collection interviews with Herk Harvey and John Collins (as well as Candace Hilligoss and Sidney Bergman) are very good. The Bear particularly enjoyed the screenwriter's comments. He (like the Bear) did not outline in advance, but wrote chronologically. That means he did not know the ending until after he was halfway through. He describes his style as not knowing what he was going to write, but writing, then discovering the story he had written.

Unlike the Bear, who rewrites, dewrites, backfills and gets obsessive, Herk Harvey was ready to shoot by the time Collins finished the first draft.

Candace Hilligoss is wide-eyed, gangly, and in nearly every frame: drag-racing on a bridge; covered with bottom silt emerging from a river; playing an enormous pipe organ; haunted by the image of a man in Beetlejuice makeup; alternately being repulsed by or clinging to the slimy guy across the hall; walking through a busy town where she can hear nothing and is seen by no one; getting hysterical; and looking pretty fetching in that 60s way when she's not running from eager, grinning aqua-zombies.

"Oh, yeah, baby. You know you want me to come in, don't you?"
A still cannot do justice to Berger's portrayal of a loser
who's more oily and pathetic than menacing. 

If there was an Oscar category for Best Performance as a Oily, Repulsive Stalker, Sidney Berger would have walked away with it. If you're going to go pig-eyed leering greaser licking his chops like a cartoon Big Bad Wolf, go big. The guy is so horrifying you can't take your eyes off him. The fact that poor Mary Henry (played by Hilligoss) doesn't beat him to death with the alabaster floor-ashtray by her door at first sight shows just how desperate she is. And... well, just hmm.

The black and white cinematography ranges from artless to beautiful without often calling attention to itself.

Director Herk Harvey as "The Man" who haunts Mary Henry.
Clearly not your average zombie.

Inspiration: They Aspired to Art with Little More than 
Talent and a Location and Nearly Made it

You're probably thinking, so, the Bear's discovered some campy Plan 9 From Outer Space so-bad-it's-entertaining piece of Ed Wood trash. Nope. Not the Bear's style.

Carnival of Souls is an effective horror movie that relies on psychology and atmosphere instead of gore or overuse of monsters. It is a better than average take on a familiar trope. (It's hardly a spoiler when a girl walks out of a river covered in bottom silt three hours after her car plunges into it, so hint: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.)

It's like a movie from auteur David Lynch only in that the next day you think you dreamed it. But these corporate movie guys cranked out a better movie in three weeks of shooting because they did not go in for the weird-for-weird's-sake backwards midgets and such. They let the ordinary be ordinary in the context of a handful of creepy shots and an understated, realistic dreamlike quality that lets you know nothing is right for this unfortunate wide-eyed girl.

And for a day or so - and especially a night or so - the ordinary world won't seem quite so right for you, either.

Is it a great move? No. It's a good movie that is far better than it should have been, made by people who loved their craft, worked with little more than talent and a good location, and aspired to art.

The distributors went broke, and the checks for all those B-movie drive-in screenings bounced.

That they nearly made it is what inspires a paperback writer known to you as the Bear.

58 days to deadline, 64,398 words of target 100,000
Book 2 of the Rubicatae Chronicles
Conspiracy of Crows
(God willing)


  1. Ahhhhhh.....Those were the good old days. Something REAL, MAGICAL and horrifyingly STIRRING was always experienced when we went to the theater and watched one of these scary old movies as kids. They don't make 'em like that anymore. Or do they? Even though these flicks (not flix) belong to an entirely different era, they will always belong to that genre of horror cult classics known by traditional Catholic film buffs everywhere as AUTHENTIC MAGISTIRIUM!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I'm happy someone read the story of these guys and their late recognition. AUTHENTIC MAGISTERIUM indeed.

      The classic horror films were the bread-and-butter for Universal Studios, and lent themselves to low-budget independent filmmakers later. Then there were those color Vincent Price movies. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an offbeat fave, and of course, the Poe adaptations in lush color.

      Do them make 'em like that anymore? Nowadays it seems you can't find anything but comic book franchises, of which the Bear is tired. Night of the Living Dead came out four years after Carnival of Souls, and, while an effective low budget film, it used shock (the kid eating the guts of somebody in the basement) which is where, in my opinion things took a wrong turn.

      There's an admirable restraint in Carnival of Souls. "The Man" who stalks Mary Henry smiles. He's menacing, but intelligent. There's some purpose behind the figures who pursue Mary throughout the movie. She shouldn't be there. She isn't there. She needs to see that final scene and move on.

      As for making them like used to, I think of indy producers like Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter shares Carnival of Souls' brooding atmosphere and the psychological "TILT" light on. It's an excellent horror movie with the always great Jessica Chastain & Michael Shannon & Shea Wigham. It is much more polished, of course, but the monsters are all inside of Shannon's character. The ordinary is imbued with menace: the sky, birds, furniture... I highly recommend that as a great movie.

      But, I like the diamonds in the black-and-white rough, too. Cocteau's Orpheus is scary despite dated special effects.(Old Herk Harvey wanted to make a movie with ("a Bergman look and a Cocteau feel" - these guys might have been from Kansas, but they weren't yokels. They were craftsmen.

      Right now, the opening lyrics to the Rocky Horror Picture show (now THAT'S a guilty pleasure!) are running through me head:

      At the late night, double feature, picture show
      I wanna go - Oh oh oh oh
      To the late night, double feature, picture show
      By R.K.O. - Wo oh oh oh
      To the late night, double feature, picture show
      In the back row - Oh oh oh oh
      To the late night, double feature, picture show


Moderation is On.

Featured Post

Judging Angels Chapter 1 Read by Author

Quick commercial for free, no-strings-attached gift of a professionally produced audio book of Judging Angels, Chapter 1: Last Things, read...