Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Strange Alchemy That Made “Carnival Of Souls” Work

By Lars Trodson

The challenge in creating a believable dreamlike sequence for the movies is in getting the recipe right: a dream in a movie must have that odd mixture of fact and fiction played out on both a three-dimensional landscape and in that other place we can only call the dreamscape. This is a place beyond our dimension, although it is populated with people we know and its topography is certainly recognizable.

There is something else as well. Dreamscapes in movies almost always tend to emphasize their ephemeral qualities, their creators want them to float away, because that’s what dreams are supposed to do. That's what we think dreams do; they pop when we wake.

And yet, as we know, dreams are uncommonly sturdy, both in their logic and in their stubborn willingness to keep following us. Dreams may have more of an impact on us than our daily interactions. They are often far more durable than a conscious experience. That, too, becomes a challenge to the artist. How does one create a movie dream that feels like a dream, but also has that quotidian reality that all dreams have in their hearts?
The answer seems to have come from a group of industrial filmmakers in Kansas in the early 1960s. The group, led by director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, created the small masterpiece of a tone poem in the film “Carnival of Souls.”

As I watched the film, one of the things I kept writing in my notes was how the dialogue - plain yet haunting, poetic yet absolutely believable and logical -- seemed, to use an earlier word -- so sturdy. It was neither too much nor too little, and I realized that this is how people talk in dreams. No one ever gives a speech in a dream. The dialogue was absolutely pitch perfect for a dream - crisp. How did the writer get the approach so right?

When I looked up screenwriter Clifford’s credits on IMDB, the first title I saw was “The Speed Klect Collator” (1974) and I thought, what an odd title for a horror movie. But then I read the others: “Signals: Read ‘em or Weep” (1981); “Korea” Overview” (1980) and the “Engineering Investigation of T-37 Stalls and Spins” (1972). These are industrial films, of course.

What you had in the creation of “Carnival of Souls” was that once-in-a-lifetime combination of a writer of educational films applying that very same technique to the forms of the dreamscape. When the characters speak in "Carnival of Souls", they are slyly providing us information.

It's almost as though Clifford and Harvey said to themselves: we will educate the audience about this particular dream. The filmmakers never waiver from that vision.  What they ended up creating was the all-too-logical yet perfectly believable dream. It doesn’t happen often, and maybe Harvey and Clifford (who died in March at 91) would never have been able to pull it off again, but it doesn’t matter. (In fact they didn’t make another fiction film together.) The alchemy -- this commingling of artistic sensibilities, flat facts about the landscape of the film coupled with gorgeous dreamlike photography -- worked once. It works like a bedevilled charm.

There is no hint of the supernatural or surreal in the opening moments of the film. A couple of dragsters challenge a car full of young women to a race. It’s simple enough, and the approach Harvey takes here is to film like a standard drive-in flick.

The race, such as it is, goes horribly wrong, and the car filled with the women goes off a bridge and into the river, where it promptly sinks. The sequence is brief, no more than a few minutes, and then the title sequence begins. The credits are shown over shots of the river where the car has landed; the framing of these shots is austere, you immediately become aware that the director of photography, Maurice Prather, has a good eye. A great eye, in fact.

Throughout the film's 83-minute running time, Prather comes up with one sensational image after another (including a haunting shot of Mary playing a monstrous pipe organ).

When the opening titles are over, local law enforcement is seen dragging the river for the victims and their car. It is here that Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) staggers out of the water, seemingly the lone survivor of the crash. "What about the other girls?" one of the rescuers asks her. "I don't remember," Mary says, blankly. And she carries the same wide-eyed questioning stare throughout the movie.

It is easy to see why "Carnival of Souls" did not do well at the box office (when it was released it was teamed with a movie called "The Devil's Messenger"). There is no hint of sex (although Hilligoss is certainly beautiful) in the movie; Mary in fact has sworn off men, including her lecherous rooming-house neighbor (played by Sidney Berger). There are no boozy, floozy bar patrons here.

Mary is a church organist, but even this is not a spiritual endeavor. "I'm not taking the vows, I'm only playing the organ," she says of her new job playing for a church in Salt Lake City. When she leaves her native Kansas, one of the men in the shop where the organ was manufactured says, "If she's got a problem, it'll go right along with her."

That's the kind of spare poetry Clifford exercises throughout the entire film. And that guy was certainly right.

"Carnival of Souls" is most often compared to Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge", and that famous short story can certainly lay some parental claim to Harvey and Clifford's film.

But I think the real inspiration was Louise Fletcher's famous radio play, "The Hitchhiker", which was performed by Orson Welles in 1946. In that drama, a man named Ronald Adams starts out on a cross-country trip, only to be followed by a silent, mysterious, shabby stranger all along the way. That stranger ends up driving Adams mad, and in the end we find out just who and what this stranger is.

This has the same structure as "Carnival of Souls." In the film, as Mary heads off on her nighttime journey to Salt Lake, the strange visage of a ghost (played by director Harvey) shows up everywhere: along the road, in the window, in the corridor of her rooming house, and finally, at the end, at the huge abandoned pavilion where the film concludes. This visage ends up driving Mary mad, as well.

So I think it is fair to say that "The Hitchhiker" was almost certainly the main inspiration for "Carnival of Souls."

"The Hitchhiker" was turned into a 1960 episode of the "Twilight Zone", something the filmmakers and its backers would almost certainly be aware of.

The "Occurrence" connection is also probable, but again the actual film has a clearer resemblance to "The Hitchhiker" than the Bierce story. At any rate, there was a 1959 "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" version produced in 1959 that Herk and Clifford obviously could have seen. The 1962 "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" version, although more famous today, might not have been on their radar when "Carnival" went into production.

That film is actually French and while it won the top short film award at the 1962 Cannes festival and the 1963 Oscar for Best Short Film, it might not yet have been seen in rural Kansas by 1962. It was later broadcast as an episide of "The Twilight Zone" in 1964, two years after "Carnival Of Souls" was released.

"Carnival Of Souls" is now in the public domain. It can be seen in a beautifully restored Criterion print, or it can be viewed at various sites on the Internet. But watch it in a pristine print if you can.

This is a haunting, hypnotic, unique film.