Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ghost of Halloween Movie Picks: Hard Haunted (Part 1)

Today we'll feature a couple of hauntings... one just after midnight, and another just after noon. Consider this a small measure of proof that sunlight does not always banish shadows, as the gentleman who brought you Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters will now explain...

John Langan (author of House of Windows) on CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962): I can't remember how I came to watch Carnival of Souls. There was a video store in Rosendale, the nearest town to where my wife and I were living; I want to say I ran across the box for Carnival while prowling the wire racks of that mom-n-pop venture (whose interior, in my memory, is always dim, washed by the pale light that pushed its way through the hazy windows). It must have been a VHS tape; although I'm sure the cover would have been the same as that for the DVD I eventually picked up: a cartoonish drawing of a woman with long blond hair looking over her right shoulder as she runs away from whatever has brought the look of terror to her face. Her blouse is off-the-shoulders, the better to display her generous cleavage; indeed, she might have fled straight from the cover of a Harlequin romance. Behind her, a stolid building raises a pair of onion domes on stocky towers, while below and to the left, the cadaverous head of an old man leers. It's an illustration that screams low-budget, and the film it advertises does nothing to contradict that impression. Shot in black and white, using no-name actors who in most cases deliver their lines as reading them from cue-cards, Carnival of Souls is a bare-bones production.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can be an asset. From Night of the Living Dead (1968) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), filmmakers have made a virtue of frugality, using their limited resources to give their movies something of the feel of cinema verite. The artlessness of the actors, the simplicity of the special effects, can contribute to the impression that we're seeing through to something, a layer of authenticity, that can render these films more deeply affecting than their better-financed brethren.

Certainly, that's the case with Carnival of Souls. The movie begins with a drag-race that leads to a car full of young women plunging off a bridge into a wide, muddy river. Three hours later, as the local authorities search the fast-moving, opaque water for the car, one of its passengers climbs up onto the muddy shore. Immediately mobbed by rescuers, Mary Henry has no answer to their questions of what happened, how she survived. Subsequently, she returns to the scene of the accident, but if she is looking for answers, the river's dull surface offers none. A musician, the music she coaxes from the pipe organ is haunting, a combination of carnival melody and funeral dirge that seems to hint at the emotions churning inside her. Her musical talent offers her a way out of town, and she accepts a position as the organist for a church out west, in Utah. (The opening location of the film is not identified, but it feels like somewhere in the broad Midwest.)

On the drive to her new job, Mary sees the silhouette of a distant structure rising against the mountains. It's massive, domed. Shortly thereafter, her reflection the the passenger-side window is replaced by the head and shoulders of a man. Wearing a black jacket, white shirt, and black tie, he's corpse-white, his eyes dark, sunken, his scant hair curling from his head. Seconds later, he reappears, standing in the middle of the road. Of course, Mary doesn't hit him. As soon as she has taken a room in a boarding house, the nameless man begins to appear to her, sometimes in place of her reflection, sometimes waiting at the foot of the stairs to her room, a macabre gentleman caller. Mary learns that the structure whose outline she saw was formerly a bathhouse, then an amusement park, until the lake over which it was built dried up and it was abandoned. She has visions of the place in which the nameless man is waiting there; later, he will be joined by a host of similar figures. Worst of all, Mary begins to experience moments -- heralded by a shimmer across the screen, as if water were running over it -- during which she cannot be perceived by the people around her.

Even from so brief a summary as this, it's possible to guess that this film is an example of the posthumous fantasy, an updating of "An Occurrence at Owl-Creek Bridge." It's a supposition that the very end of the film appears to endorse. And yet, it isn't that, or isn't only that, as the second-to-last scene attests. Something deeply strange has happened to Mary Henry, and while I have my ideas about what that is, I'd rather keep them to myself, since the purpose of this little essay is to encourage you to give this film a look. The best horror films, it seems to me, are the ones that leave room for mystery, that deliberately refuse to answer every question they raise, and in so doing, allow a space for the viewer. Carnival of Souls does this; indeed, having just watched it again, I can say that it stirs more questions in me now than it did when I first watched it.

The would-be blurbist in me would like to describe the movie as a low-budget L'annee derniere a Marienbad (1961), except that there are too many substantial differences between the films to support such an equation. Yet the films share a sense of unease, a suggestion that something sinister is lurking just off-camera, drawing ever-nearer. It would be more apt to say that Carnival of Souls is the best Ramsey Campbell movie Ramsey never wrote.

Behind the video store in which I may have discovered Carnival of Souls, there's a drop and then a bit of flat land that reaches a brief distance to the Rondout Creek, which flows broad and flat and not too deep. As you face the water, there's a bridge to your right, low, metal, difficult if not impossible to drive off, I imagine, and even if you did, the Creek's not deep enough for you and your car to be lost in. I don't think it is, anyway. Fall afternoons, it's almost possible to hear the low, lonely tones of a pipe-organ rolling over the scene.