Saturday, October 19, 2013

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

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 car accident after a drag race. She then heads to Utah to begin a new job as a church organist. But as she settles into her new surroundings, a ghostly man keeps appearing and haunting her. She also has moments where she feels disconnected from reality, and it seems no one can see or hear her. And why is she being drawn to an abandoned carnival outside town? Is she being pursued by an otherworldly prescence, or is there a more terrifying answer to why these events are centered on her?

The ultimate reveal in the movie will seem familiar to today’s audiences, who have seen similar stories on TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and in films like The Sixth Sense, but it works very well here. It’s a tribute to the cast & crew that they get so much out of so little. There are some truly spooky sequences that really stay with you after viewing the movie. Producer-director Herk Harvey, who had previously worked on educational & 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 her role) only made one other film and did a few TV appearances and some stage work; it’s this role for which genre fans 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 & 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 & death than a straight on terror tale. The movie had fallen into the public domain for many years, and inferior video copies were available in bargain bins at your local video store. 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 & 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 the marina. People keep telling him that her previous boyfriends have all met mysterious ends, and 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 the sea people? Who is killing the men Mora’s been dating? What does Murdock, the owner of the sideshow, know about all this?

Writer-director Harrington went on to a long career in TV & movies, including making the twist-laden mystery Games (1967), which starred James Caan & Katherine Ross. Here he evokes the mist-shrouded style of films such as producer Val Lawton’s Cat People (1942). Harrington was a fan of Lewton’s work & the influence on Night Tide is clear; there could be a supernatural explanation for some of the film’s events, but you’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 always remembered it, though I hadn’t seen it in many years, until I recently viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies. The movie has recently been released in a new, remastered edition on both Blu-ray & DVD by Kino Video; extras include a commentary by Harrington & Hopper, and a video interview with Harrington from 1987.

While I love the Universal horror classics of the 30s & 40s & many of the sci-fi & horror films of the 50s & 60s, sometimes it’s the more offbeat, spooky films like Carnival of Souls & Night Tide that get rooted in your psyche. They may not be as scary as you remember them, 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 Souls: and Night Tide:

Next: Our Fright-Fest concludes with two very haunted houses

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