Monday, December 15, 2008

Secret stigma, reaping wheel

Next up in my festive holiday trifecta: the 1962 classic "Carnival of Souls." Wow! I don't think I've ever identified with a horror heroine quite so much. After a serious car accident, Mary (Candace Hilligoss, who only made one other movie, but it was called "Curse of the Living Corpse"!) packs up and moves to Utah for a new job as church organist. But she's haunted by creepy apparitions and horrific nightmares. She has episodes where she seems to become invisible to people around her - a saleslady looks right through her, sound seems to come from under water. And everywhere she goes, she sees the same smiling white-faced man, staring back at her out of mirrors, reflected in her car window, nearly bumping into her nose at the water fountain.

This all makes Mary a bit jumpy, and it doesn't help that she's already kind of an oddball for 1962. A healthy, intelligent young woman who doesn't want friends, isn't interested in the advances of the loutish tenant across the hall in her boarding house, plays professionally on a church organ but lacks religious conviction... she doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. Her landlady, her boss at the church and her doctor are all slightly baffled by her. You've already got the plot twist figured out, ten minutes into the movie, but it's fascinating to watch: on so many levels, Mary doesn't belong here. She belongs somewhere else.

It's creepy as hell to watch Mary's destiny close in on her. Gorgeous, too. Why aren't more horror movies set in Utah? The black and white cinematography makes the most of the sweeping, open landscape, especially around the vacant lakeside pavilion that irresistibly draws Mary: white skies against dark water. This would be great to see on a big screen. The soundtrack, almost entirely organ music, is gorgeous too.

As a fairly spacey person myself, with an often-tenuous grip on reality ("Where are my glasses? What's her name again? Wait, what year is this?"), I could powerfully identify with Mary's terror as her world starts to blur and something else starts to come in. It's a universal fear, this fear of losing one's grip altogether. James Thurber puts it this way in his introduction to "My Life and Hard Times":

It is unfortunate, however, that even a well-ordered life can not lead anybody safely around the inevitable doom that waits in the skies. As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.

Brr. Let's turn on some more lights and have some eggnog!


ACE said...

On a completely weird note, Utah was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen after driving through it twice. Breathtaking.

AE said...

Utah is absolutely beautiful. Windswept and radiant and gorgeous. It was so strange to see it in black and white.