Sunday, 24 January 2010

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Herk Harvey’s solitary but celebrated midnight matinee masterpiece is an indelibly creepy no-budget work that could be called the film Ed Wood might have made if he'd had talent. But it honestly works a magic reminiscent of Carl Dreyer and anticipatory of the stylisation of Stanley Kubrick (in The Shining), David Lynch (especially in Lost Highway) and the directors of a thousand music videos, in cleverly exploiting the simplest and ropiest of effects, from pancake make-up for its spectral beings to sped-up filming of prancing ghouls, for genuinely unnerving and surreal effect.

It’s chiefly a victory for inventive filmmaking and masterful use of locations rather than scripting or acting, for both of those elements are for the large part crude, in accounting the mysterious tale of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young musician who seems to die in a drag-racing accident with her two friends, but crawls out of the river unharmed hours later and proceeds, unflappably, on to her new job, playing the organ in a Utah church.

The film possesses an element of didacticism that reflects Harvey’s background in pedagogic short films and educational works, bandying such lines as “You cannot live in isolation from the human race, you know” with blatant meaning, as the irreligious, estranged heroine slowly begins to perceive herself as more than especially alienated from her fellow people, to the point where she desperately clings to the pushy, slightly sleazy blue-collar guy she shares her rooming house with, John Linden (Sidney Berger), and drifts into a trance-like fit of sonorous organ playing that offends the church pastor (Art Ellison).

She continually hallucinates being haunted by a creepy pasty-faced spectre (Harvey himself), is plagued by nightmarish visions of a deserted funfair and ballroom on the edge of the Great Salt Lake filled with the dancing damned, and experiences moments of total divorcement from reality when no-one can see or hear her in spite of her entreaties. Her desire to remain unmarried and ply her trade as a musician to the church without engaging in reverence for such a job carry a whiff of parochial reaction.

If the script is unwieldy and the underlying sentiments a bit regressive, Harvey still constructs an intensely accurate transposition of nightmare imagery and logic that’s transcendent. He evokes, especially in the weird, brilliantly employed locales, a peculiar kind of American gothic, based in the desperate, desolate, erstwhile pretensions of a decaying Midwestern setting, infused with the lightest touch of down-home religious fervour, which effectively delineates the mid-ground between fairy tale and urban myth.

Hilligoss, although nothing amazing, works her character’s coldness and mounting hysteria with intelligence, and Berger is very effective in evoking a sticky mixture of neediness and threat in his character. A couple of would-be scares, like Harvey turning up in the chair of Hilligoss’s doctor, are a bit laborious, and the technical deficiencies hard to work through in spots. But scenes of the spirits cavorting within the great ballroom, still hung with forlorn streamers from long-forgotten carousing, evoke the shadowy revels of Vampyr, and the final sequences of Hilligoss’s relentless hounding by the ghouls who have come to jealously claim her restless soul, seeing herself as one of them, locked in a laughing dance with her spectral taunter, and especially the bleakly cryptic conclusion, aren’t easily dismissed.


Derek Wall said...

thanks for this, quoted you on my another green world blog and put a link,

very interesting and enjoyable film, thanks for writing about it.

Roderick Heath said...

Thank ye kindly.