Thursday 27 October 2016

We Don't Go Back #3: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls is folk horror. Sort of.

Subgenres are subjective. The big genres have their border cases, but when you split it off into subgenres, you inevitably end up having to make judgement calls. For example, does the English language remake of The Grudge count as J-Horror if it was filmed in Japan by the original Japanese director, notwithstanding the presence of Buffy? Is The Terminator cyberpunk? This isn't limited to film. I remember being on a music forum some years ago where there was a great deal of discussion about an intensely derivative musical genre called indiepop1, and in all good faith, I remember asking what exactly indiepop was. How it was defined, and the most cogent argument one of the forum moderators could put forward boiled down to, "it's what I say it is." And actually, what I didn't really get at the time is that this is an entirely valid method of selection.

And I'm going to butt up against these border cases quite a lot (just wait until I get to Valerie and her Week of Wonders). So with that in mind, I picked it because it seemed, from my memory of having seen it once, 25 years ago, to be the right sort of thing for this project. 
Candace Hilligoss.
Carnival of Souls is one of the greatest zero-budget films ever made. it is the story of professional church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). She walks out of a car accident that happens shortly before leaving for a new job at a Catholic church in a nearby town. But in her new situation, she find herself hounded by the apparition of a deathly pale smiling man and a troupe of ghostly figures.
Driving on a lonely highway, an apparition at the window.
She finds that from time to time the world goes silent and no one can see or hear her. She loses her job because she loses control of her hands and begins to play chilling, atonal melodies on the church organ. And she is drawn repeatedly to the derelict fairground on the outskirts of town.
Some of the best sequences in the movie are where Mary explores the fairground.
It dawns on her that something is wrong. Something is gradually, inexorably separating her – is her alienation due to wooden acting or an amazing performance? Does it matter? – from the rest of humanity.
Mary: I don't belong in the world. That's what it is. Something separates me from other people. Everywhere...they're everywhere. They're not going to let me go. Everywhere I turn. There's something that's blocking my escape. It's trying to prevent me from living! He's trying to take me back somewhere! I can't fight anymore! I don't know what's real anymore! 
The denouement is pure Ambrose Bierce by way of Tales from the Crypt. So why am I including it in my folk horror watch?
Herk Harvey.
Well, there's the cheapness of it. It's the only feature film made by Herk Harvey (who also plays the smiling man); the only acting professional in the movie is Hilligoss. The rest of the cast are Harvey's family and friends, and the locations were readily available.

But its status as a piece of folk art only rests partly on its home-made nature (cheapness being one of the major characteristics of folk horror); there's a lot to be said about its relationship to the landscape. Folk horror depends on the psychogeography of the rural landscape. Or to put it in a less long-wordy way, the countryside has a history and a spirit, and the way in which people relate to that history makes for stories, and often those stories are scary.
The fairground, in its context, isolated, pagan.
The American relationship with history often seems, to a European like me, a bit weird. Human monuments that go back literally thousands of years get ignored, and things that have only been gone decades are treated as heritage, as history. And here's where Carnival of Souls falls into that bracket. The Kansas landscape, with its muddy river banks and wide fields and dust and highways, is isolating and carries a threat. And the fairground is, with the real human history of the land having been effaced, the nearest those fields will have to a stone circle or an abandoned temple.

The dance of the dead.
Mary Henry, with her inability to commit to the church she works for, is drawn to a peculiar kind of religion; the derelict funfair depicts a historical denial of the church, its earthy tackiness a kind of pagan counterpoint to the clean, austere and modern Catholic church Mary plays for; when the pale ghosts dance to the eerie wheezing organ, you could be seeing the American counterpoint to a British witches' Sabbat. 

OK, it's a stretch. I mean, Carnival of Souls could fall into a folk horror bracket; it just as easily falls into the genre of movies made by men where women go quietly mad (Black Swan, Repulsion), or into a bunch of other brackets. But I think its low-key home-made Americana earns it a place on my project.

Alex Cox2, introducing the film on its 1991 BBC2 broadcast (which was the first and last time I saw it before this morning), summed it up so: "minute for minute, it is better entertainment, has better direction and more inspired performances than films costing tens of millions more."

I agree with him.  

1Indiepop is a musical genre that I largely do not care for. As far as I can make out, to qualify, it has to be badly-produced, on a tiny label, and feature off-key singing and handclaps. 90% of indiepop albums sound exactly the same. But then you could argue that 90% of folk horror looks exactly the same unless you look really closely, so that's not actually a critique. That's just me admitting I don't really like it, although there was a period when I did, very much. Clearly I am not the man I was. (back)

2Alex Cox directed Repo Man, which is my single favourite movie, and several other wacky, strange, wonderful films. His version of Death and the Compass, which I saw on the BBC some time in early 1996, is the reason I got into Borges. In the late 80s and early 90s, he presented a series of cult movies under the banner Moviedrome. Many of these films I would never have heard of if it weren't for Cox; in fact at least one movie (Nothing Lasts Forever) is still unavailable on any domestic format. (back)