Saturday, October 19, 2013

October Scares: A Double Feature with Haunted Carnivals & Eerie Mermaids

Candace Hilligoss and friend in Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls (1962) is one of those films that truly fits the definition of the term “cult movie.” Made on a small budget, it retains its reputation as an offbeat exercise in horror. The story concerns Mary Henry, who survives a terrible car accident after a drag race. She then heads to Utah to begin working as a church organist. But as she settles into her new surroundings, a ghostly man keeps appearing to her and haunting her. She also has moments where she feels disconnected from reality, and it seems like no one can see or hear her. Why is she being drawn to an abandoned carnival outside town? Is she being pursued by an otherworldly presence? Or is there an even more terrifying reason why these strange events are centered on Mary?

The ultimate twist in the movie will seem less shocking to today’s audiences, who have seen a host of similar reveals on TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and in modern films like The Sixth Sense. The "surprise" ending works very well in the context of the story. It’s a tribute to the cast & crew that they get so much out of so little in this eerie thriller. There are some truly spooky sequences that really stay with you after seeing the movie. Producer-director Herk Harvey, who had previously worked on educational and industrial films, shot the movie on location in Utah. He employed mostly local actors, except for lead Candace Hilligoss. Amazingly, Hilligoss (who’s excellent in the role of Mary) only made one other film. She also did a handful of TV appearances and some stage work. However, it's this film for which genre fans most fondly remember her.

While it was not a success on its original release, Carnival of Souls gained fans from countless late night TV showings and occasional festival screenings over the years. The movie has influenced many filmmakers, including George Romero and David Lynch. I remember seeing it on late night TV as a kid. It was unsettling, and it left you feeling uneasy, like you'd just seen something very different from the usual horror fare. This is a strange, offbeat film that plays more like a meditation on life and death than a straight ahead terror tale. The movie had fallen into the public domain for many years, and inferior video copies were available in bargain bins at video stores and discount outlets. In 2000, the outstanding specialty label The Criterion Collection released an excellent two-disc edition of the film that includes two versions of the movie, a retrospective documentary and other extras. It’s still in print and available for purchase at online retailers. The movie is also available for digital download and viewing on various sites.

Another effective thriller from the same period is Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). While it’s not really a horror film, it’s another atmospheric story that will appeal to old school genre fans. A lonely sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper, in an early role) enters a relationship with a woman named Mora, who performs as a mermaid in a sideshow at a local marina. People keep telling him that her previous boyfriends have all met mysterious ends. The ethereal Mora (Linda Lawson) believes she may actually be a mermaid. As their relationship continues, a mysterious woman stalks Mora; she appears to know about Mora’s past, and warns her that her 'true nature' will show itself. Is she really descended from a race of sea people? Who is killing the men Mora’s been dating? What does Murdock, the owner of the sideshow, know about all this?

Linda Lawson and Dennis Hopper in Night Tide
Writer-director Harrington went on to a long career in TV and movies. He also directed the twist-laden mystery Games (1967), which starred James Caan & Katherine Ross. Here he evokes the mist-shrouded style of films like producer Val Lawton’s Cat People (1942). Harrington was a fan of Lewton’s work and his influence on Night Tide is clear; there could be a supernatural explanation for some of the film’s events, but we’re never sure. What is evident is that some of the characters believe there are other forces at work, and that informs their choices in the story. The film is well directed; despite its low budget, the movie manages to convey an effective sense of the uncanny. Night Tide is another film that I recall seeing on WPIX's “Chiller Theatre” in my younger days, and I've always remembered it. I hadn’t seen it in many years, until I recently viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies. The movie has now been released in a new, remastered edition on both Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Video; extras include a commentary by Harrington and Hopper, and a video interview with Harrington from 1987.

If you haven't seen these films, I highly recommend them. Both Carnival of Souls and Night Tide just might get rooted in your psyche. If you have seen them, perhaps it's time to revisit them. These movies may not be as scary as you remember, but they can still get under your skin, and find their way into the darker corners of your mind. Here are links to the trailers for Carnival of Soulshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkTz0EvfEiY and Night Tidehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF6gPQh5t0A.

Next: Our Fright-Fest concludes with a very haunted house.
 

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