One of my favourite films ever is Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece of eerie horror, Don’t Look Now. A restored version of Don’t Look Now is in cinemas at the moment and that sounds like a great way for you to discover this classic.
You will have seen from previous posts here that I have a fondness for cult horror movies. I don’t necessarily mean gruesome and gore-some, although I liked The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a lot. The best horror films dabble with other genres—comedy in An American Werewolf in London, melodrama in The Baby, science fiction in Alien— and, like Don’t Look Now and Les Diaboliques, base their horror on a sense of the protagonist’s familiar world (and, by extension, our familiar world) crumbling under strange, almost supernatural, forces outside their control or comprehension.
The latest old-school horror gem I’ve discovered is a brilliant American film from 1962 called Carnival of Souls. Mary, played by the luminous Candace Hilligoss, emerges from the scene of a terrible accident. Putting it behind her as best one can, she decides to take up a job — church organist — in a new town, but finds herself troubled by strange visions, peculiar sensations and the overbearing attention of a louche neighbour. Meanwhile, an abandoned fairground pavilion outside of town starts to have a strange allure for her, and so she simply must visit it…
‘Haunting’ may be better than ‘horror’ in describing this wonderful movie. Mary certainly goes through the wringer and struggles to understand what’s happening to her, but the film is never exploitative or gratuitously shocking. Parts of it — Mary’s first appearance after the accident, her barefoot church organ playing, and especially the sequences around the abandoned fairground — are even rather dreamy and beautiful in that classic American Gothic style of dark romanticism, evocative locations and a doomed attraction to something not-quite-life, not-quite-death. And Mary isn’t mere scantily-clad chainsaw fodder like you find in cheap slasher flicks or zombie romps, but an independent, assertive woman struggling with otherworldly forces while (as if she hadn’t enough on her plate) also having to bat off some pushy loser guy.
Carnival of Souls was cheaply made and sometime it shows. Hilligoss was the only trained actor in the cast; the rest were locals of the town of Lawrence, Kansas, where most of the film was shot. One scene of walk-and-talk dialogue starts while the cast are clearly still standing on their marks. The film also borrows heavily from Psycho, released two years earlier — as well as being in black-and-white, it features Mary on a long solo drive through the night, an old-fashioned boarding house (closer to the Bates home than the Bates Motel) where she stays, an over-friendly young man she meets there, and a narrative wound up by a police investigation. In its turn Carnival of Souls has been hugely influential, most notably on George A. Romero’s original 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead.
Low budget can also inspire high creativity; writer-producer-director Henk Harvey, in his only feature film, uses hand-held cameras and imaginative angles to capture Mary’s increasingly disturbed world. The director also has a notable supporting role — trust me, you’ll notice him when he first appears. Monochrome also hides a lot of budget restraints that would look cheap in colour and even works in the movie’s favour, especially by accentuating the half-lights and shadows that come to envelop Mary like a lover’s coat draped around your shoulders.
‘Low budget’ for its makers now means ‘free’ for you; Carnival of Souls has fallen out of copyright, so you can now watch the whole fantastic thing online (below). That said, do yourself a favour and don’t watch it on your phone during your morning commute; save it for a large screen, late at night, with the lights off and the shadows on…
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