Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The "smart" side of horror and CARNIVAL OF SOULS (63)

I studied abroad in New Zealand many, many years ago. It was a slow, sometimes sad time that I'll always equate with Indian food and cheap, dark beer. During this time I fancied myself a film academic in training and signed up for a handful of film-related classes I was sure would fascinate me. Russian film (truly boring), New Zealand film (one of the worst taught classes I've ever been a part of) and Horror Film filled out my schedule and I was willing and ready to indulge in the glut of cinema coming down the pipe. Mostly, I was just excited for Horror Film. I've been a fan of horror in all its bizarre forms for years and the thought of someone actually teaching me about the genre's sordid history fascinated me, especially when our screening schedule featured some of the greats: The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Brood, and on and on and on.

Turns out the academic take on horror is fairly boring, fairly infuriating and exactly not what I wanted to learn about as a 20 year old in New Zealand. Instead of dissecting the director's motives behind a puking Linda Blair in The Exorcist we talked about periods and the "toothed vagina"; aliens in The Brood became symbols of mommy issues; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was removed from its context as seedy exploitation film and instead gained academic assumptions of family problems writ large. It was as boring and disappointing a class I've ever been a part of.

With that said, I was watching Carnival of Souls (63) last night and multitude of sort of academic minded thoughts (the kind that are based on a viewer's deas and not actually the thoughts of director, cast, writer, or cinematographer) came to mind. I'm not usually one who indulges in this sort of shit, but I thought it might be sort of interesting to pick apart a very basic, though beautiful and enjoyable b-movie and see if I could find deeper meaning in its subtext.

Layman's terms: I like wanking off intellectually.

Carnival of Souls (63) is, I think, a film about a modern woman in a tightly restricted society and the pressures it presents and how they eventually drive her to insanity. Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) after surviving an automobile's plunge in to an icy river, emerges as a new type of woman. Instead of the simpering, pure, motherly, almost subservient female audiences had become used to in the 1960s, Mary is much more a modern portrayal. She rebukes the advances of a skeezy boarder. She takes a job far away from family and friends, bucking the trends of the established housewife to pursue a career based on her academic history. In a scene with a stodgy preacher she attempts to force him in to breaking the law, and when he refuses, she comes back and does it again. Sure, she isn't reinventing Women's Liberation, but Mary is as modern a 1960s horror protagonist as you're going to get.

And she suffers greatly for it.

Mary has visions of ghosts that haunt her. Mary often times has these flashback like moments where she's actually drawn out of the real world and can only look on to the world passing her by. Mary slowly starts to lose her grip on the world she has known. Her bizarre flashbacks seem almost entirely based on her role as this modern woman, pushed so far outside of the prevailing views of the day that she actually unable to interact with those around her. She's pushed further and further away from reality, from the presence of real people and finds herself instead drawn to an architectural relic and the strange ghosts that float about there. She returns again and again to this decrepit resort (itself a symbol of a time gone by) and each time her loneliness seems more self-imposed in the context of this oppressive town she lives in.

As the film sort of plods to an end (it is not the most exciting of films), Mary is so disillusioned so terrified by her reception in this restrictive town, that she attempts to flee and is subjected to a series of horrifying visions in the process. As if the idea of breaking free from these ideals is so traumatizing that it actually draws these "terrifying" thoughts from her head. It ends tragically and I can't help but think that the final shots of Mary, dead in the front seat of the car, act as some sort of allusion to the cyclical world she may, or may not have felt trapped within.

Or Herk Harvey, director of Carnival of Souls (63) might've just been hungry to throw together a cheap-o horror film that starred a pretty girl and let him play with make-up. It's really just how you look at it.

Wednesday: The Third Man (64)

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