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February 11, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #58 - Carnival of Souls

"I understand what makes a woman feel like any man is better than nothing.  I've just never understood what makes her feel like she has nothing." - Jeremy Goodwin

That's a quote from my co-favorite television show, Sports Night, and I'm not entirely sure why it came to mind when I started thinking about Carnival of Souls.  This isn't to say that I think Herk Harvey's independent horror masterpiece - which might be the gold standard for all low budget products of passion - is about our lead characters' search for romance.  It's just that, with each viewing of the film, I feel a little sadder about the plight of poor Mary Henry.  She just might be the most doomed woman in the history of horror, and I don't know why.
Having seen the film nearly a dozen times, I of course know the literal reason why there are strange things happening to Mary.  And, although the film's plot was pretty revolutionary at the time, it shouldn't take long for today's viewer to piece together what's going on in the film.  Despite the fact that anyone with a basic knowledge of modern storytelling will see the "twist" coming a mile away, Mary's plight still creates a haunting unease in me.  From the beginning of the film, Mary Henry - as played by Candace Hilligoss - has the look of a sad, lonely puppy.  And the strange thing is...most of the characters treat her like one.

When you come across a sad mutt, there are a few things you can do to try and change its mood.  The pastor Mary will be working for decides to take her for a drive, but when they come across the carnival playground that previously caught Mary's eye he denies her urge to wander around it, asking her "What attraction could there be for you out there?"  He even emphasizes the last two words, emphasizing in his own way that her desires MUST be squashed and she must remain obedient to his god and their laws.  Not to be outdone, the landlady that she takes up a room with repeatedly offers Mary "as many baths as [she] likes", as if the answer to her problems lies in a bit of grooming.
Then there's her creeper neighbor, played by Sidney Berger, who Roger Ebert called the "definitive study of a nerd in lust".  While other acquaintances have been at least human toward Mary, Berger's John Linden takes the hound dog approach to gaining her attention.  He offers her food and drink, a move that could have been nice in a weird Lady and the Tramp kind of way, but his male gaze toward her is obvious and unsettling.  With the tact of a pitbull and the yap of an overzealous basset hound, John Linden is most certainly not the answer to Mary's problems, despite his pleas to the contrary.
What will help Mary out of her funk?  We honestly never know.  She struts around with her head high and shows a desire for independence, but when she is actually secluded from society - as unknown forces make her seemingly invisible to the world around her - she begins to bounce from person to person seeking validation.  She isn't looking for love (which, in the dog analogy, would be equal to ownership), but it's clear that she deeply needs someone or something to give her attention - and that being unable to fulfill her needs is deeply affecting her well-being.

(Also, the film gains extra points due to Hilligoss' performance as Mary, not only because she's fantastic in the film, but because she would basically disappear from acting after only one more side role (in 1964's The Curse of the Living Corpse, which is more notable for being Roy Scheider's film debut).  How exactly does an actress in the horror genre, where fans are rabid and producers are shameless, just disappear after such an iconic, mesmerizing performance?  I really want to know.)
There's no glimmer of hope for Mary.  There's no light at the end of the tunnel.  All there is is an abandoned carnival and a man, "The Man", played by director Harvey.  It's as obvious to Mary as it is to the viewer that this Man is certainly not what she's looking for either, but it becomes increasingly clear that The Man is looking specifically for her.  Though Mary can run to a therapist or scream "I DON'T WANT TO BE ALONE!" to the heavens, there seems to be no way that she can escape the gaze of The Man.  Despite the fact we've spent all this time watching her, the viewer really doesn't know who she is or what she needs either.

As I've already said, most modern viewers should know what's going on in Carnival of Souls immediately.  In fact, I've probably said more than enough to give away the plot's final twist here.  But the film still manages to get under my skin as much as any classic horror film, because it introduces us to this woman and then treats her like a worthless animal for 80 minutes.
 Harvey lets the film spiral to its conclusion - using some incredibly haunting imagery for a low budget film of 1962 - and I'm left amazed at how much I can care for a thinly developed character who got the short straw.  Mary Henry is no less than abused by the souls that surround her, and it's tough to see a woman who truly has nothing face such madness.  The final result is one of the most fascinating women ever put on the horror screen, and one of the most engrossing examples of just what independent horror can do.

2 comments:

Bleaux Leaux said...

Good call! One of the great low budget classics of the day, and, along with Night of the Living Dead, one of the very finest horror movies that's ever been allowed to slip into the public domain (a quick Google search will reveal any number of sites where it can be downloaded as an .avi, .mpeg, etc).

R.D. Penning said...

I have watched it multiple times now, and I still can't quite get into it. I'm not saying the film is flawed in certain ways, it is great for it's time, but I have trouble keeping myself engaged during it, while other films from the same era have left me on the edge of my seat. I may have to revisit it again, or just accept the fact that it might just not be a movie for me. Either way, good review Mike.