Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Carnival of Souls

So many movies, especially in the fantasy and horror genre, are described as "dream-like," but Carnival of Souls (1962) might be one of the only movies that accurately fits that description. A low-budget, black-and-white effort filmed in Kansas with a cast of unknowns, it is nevertheless a surreal, unsettling examination of mortality and the inevitable nature of death. It's rough on the edges and a few parts border on camp, but what it is not is a formulaic slasher, ghost, or monster movie.

The sole survivor of a drag race that ends with a car going off a bridge, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) accepts a job in a new town as a church organist. However, ever since the accident, weird things have been happening. Occasionally, Mary finds herself unable to hear or speak with the people around her, and for some reason, she finds herself drawn to an abandoned, derelict carnival. Most unnervingly, a nameless ghoul (the film's director Herk Harvey) is pursuing her, appearing on the road while she's driving, outside the window of her apartment, and even in the mirror behind her. But no one else seems to see him.

Carnival of Souls might very well be the first "Surprise! You're Dead!" movie (if there are any that precede this one, I'd be curious). As you can probably infer from the plot summary above, Mary did not survive the crash into the river (the final shot shows her cold, lifeless body still in her seat, half-submerged). Somehow, for a time, she is granted a reprieve, a temporary release from the cold, dark clutches of death, but it is not for long. Death, in the form of ghouls, follows her everywhere, appearing without rhyme or reason, and she's not sure if she's being haunted or going crazy. In the end, the last vestiges of her life are squeezed out, silenced by death's hand, and as dying shadow in a world of lights, Mary sees her world become irrational and frightening, a waking nightmare.

Movies about nightmares usually establish some kind of ground rules, so that even in the dream world, there is some kind of logic that can be followed. Look at A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy is the dream demon, and when his victims are asleep, he is free to do whatever he wants to them. He can kill them, transform himself and them, and reshape reality however he wants. After all, it is the dream world, not governed by real world sciences or laws. When they're awake, he has no power over them.

Carnival of Souls eschews any sort of logic or rules, and instead, the movie constantly keeps us off balance. Scenes melt into each other without any transition; we begin in one location when suddenly we're in another. Once, at her apartment, Mary closes the door on a ghoul, and almost immediately, she opens it to reveal her landlady, who of course saw no one else. Other times, when Mary is playing at the organ or looking off in the distant at the carnival, she'll see entirely separate scenes that physically don't match up to the location she's at: ghouls rising out the water and dancing among merry-go-round. Wherever she goes, the nightmare can follow and replace her reality; death will not be denied its target.

The film contains a number of creepy, memorable images. The ghoul's first appearance is in the middle of the road at night, lit up only by the headlights of Mary's car. Harvey also uses fast-motion photography on the dance of the dead, suggesting something otherworldly about it. The best shot (which George Romero used in Land of the Dead) shows the ghouls lying underwater and eventually rising out of the river, front and center as they approach the camera. The makeup on the ghouls is not especially freaky or complex, but like in Night of the Living Dead, it's just enough to let you know there's something wrong about these people but you're not sure what, and in this case, it adds to the aura of mystery.

For the most part, the movie covers its low-budget roots well, turning its limitations into strengths, but the narrative is a bit repetitious after a while, and some of the acting is amateurish. From a technical standpoint, the sound mix is weak, with the dialogue sometimes too quiet and the background, static noise too loud. Carnival of Souls lacks polish, but it makes up for it with creepy visuals and an unrelenting feeling of dread.

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