Friday, November 19, 2010

Fright Flix presents - "Carnival of Souls (1962)"

Atmospheric 60s B-horror film with a cult following.
Mary Henry is enjoying the day by riding around with two friends but everything goes wrong when challenged to a drag race and their car gets forced off of a bridge. The car sinks into the murky depths, and all three women are assumed drowned. Some time later Mary emerges unscathed from the river. She tries to start a new life by becoming a church organist but Mary finds herself haunted by a ghostly figure that instills fear and dread into her.

While Carnival of Souls will never make the mainstream lists of best "horror" movies, I think it is a masterpiece. You have to look at this film in context: it was purportedly made on a shoestring budget and with a small crew. Yet, the photography and music is superb. Note the parallel imagery of the bridge arches and the church arches, for one example and, as another example, the intrusion of the decadent carnival waltz on the spiritual organ piece, juxtaposing the competing dynamics of the new and frightening dimension Mary finds herself thrust into.

This film is notable in its capacity to create an eerie, otherworldy atmosphere with limited resources. It also features some subtle humour, even though I don't think it was meant to be funny overall. The first element of humour is introduced when Mary tries to clear the theme music from her car radio- quite funny.

What is very effective also is the contrast between the rusticity of the setting, in an ordinary town of ordinary people, and the developing strangeness of Mary's personal world.

The horror itself is developed through the medium of dread; dread that a person can be caught somewhere between life and death, in a perverse reality. No gory or blood-drenched horror film can match the mood of sheer desolation in Carnival of Souls. This is a psychological rather than physical expression of horror, describing the experience of something like purgatory; of a person having her emotional and physical attachment to the world inexorably stripped away.

Mary is emotionally and spiritually dead and only the memory of shopping can bring her to something like human feeling: a woman's ultimate refuge! Yes, there is sardonic humour in this scenario. Sadly, though, for our Mary, there is no refuge, not even in shopping.

Mary Henry is faced with an excrutiating dilemma: go with the (apparently) normal living people, whom she can no longer relate to emotionally or even physically, or go with the dead, whom she is repulsed by. Deciding at last to join the dead is a decision she makes out of a sense of inevitability, having seen her unwanted suitor, Mr Linden, transform into the dead man who had been following her everywhere. Yet this choice is truly horrifying, and, realising that, she attempts to flee the dancing dead - in vain, as it turns out.

There is the element of dark humour again, in that both a living man and a dead man want the same thing: to dance with her and have sex with her. Mary no longer shares the sexual tensions of the living but is strangely attracted to the derelict carnival site where the dead man hangs out. Macabre but brilliant!

In the final analysis, any path our doomed heroine chooses leads to an unwanted outcome - and this is surely the ultimate horror any of us could face.

Or, to put it another way, no matter how solid you think your world is, the last joke is always on you.

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