Watch Catherine Deneuve delightfully sing and dance in a French New Wave classic, they said. Finally cross off a classic sitting on the watchlist for years. Too bad UK/French relations are at an all-time low when it comes to streaming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for a reasonable rental fee. However, our misfortune turned around when we opted for another classic of 1960s cinema this week on the Collab, and it’s the best kind: a cult classic.
Carnival of Souls
Following a tragic car accident and her subsequent move to Utah, a young woman is haunted by a ghostly carnival figure connected to an abandoned pavilion on the outskirts of town.
When a random 1960s dude challenges you and your crew to an impromptu car race, what’s a self-respecting woman to do but press her elegant stiletto heel to the pedal? As it turns out, this is a fateful decision–the driver turns out to be rather nasty, bumping our ladies from a bridge into the depths of a river below. One of the passengers, Mary, is the only survivor as her two friends die in the accident. As is to be expected, the two men in the other car blatantly lie about the events and walk away scot-free. A search team attempts to retrieve the remains of the wreck, but odds seem low as the muddy waters leave only the classic hook on a rope technique available. This feels so old-fashioned, but I’m honestly not sure our search and rescue technology has advanced significantly in the intervening years.
Though Mary seems understandably in shock, she is determined to carry on with her pre-crash plans to relocate to Utah for a job as a church organist. Upon leaving the institution where she learned to play the organ, she bluntly tells those wishing her well that she appreciates the sentiment but she’s never coming back. What’s more, despite the expectation that music should be her passion, it’s just a job to her. As a person with an abiding yet unfulfilled desire to disrupt polite social conventions, this speaks to me on a fundamental level. I have an extreme amount of love and admiration for our girl Mary.
Unfortunately, Mary’s expectation that she can start over with a clean slate is doomed from the start as she begins seeing the chillingly pale face of a man virtually everywhere. As she drives into town, she notices a grand empty pavilion that has seen better days…just before its closure, as a carnival.
Mary will be living in a house overseen by Mrs. Thomas, which is home to only one other lodger, John…who we will certainly spend some time on later. When the pastor welcomes Mary to town and to her new role within the church, she dodges the offer of a reception by asking if it’s absolutely necessary. No, Mary. It’s never necessary. As the pastor shows her around town, Mary asks about going into the abandoned pavilion. The pastor declines as the building has been closed off to the public for so-called health and safety reasons.
Shortly after, Mary get to know her neighbor across the hall, John, better. When she opens the door in a towel, expecting Mrs. Thomas, she changes into a robe…with John creeping on her. Initially rejecting John’s advances, Mary reconsiders after another disturbing encounter with the ghostly pale man. When John brings her coffee in the morning, Mary learns that he may have a problem with alcohol, but this doesn’t prevent him from considering himself a happy-go-lucky ladies’ man.
Mary’s plans to acquire a new (gently used) wardrobe are disrupted when, upon leaving a dressing room, she suddenly hears nothing and seems to be invisible to those around her. Understandably upset, Mary has a bit of a breakdown and encounters a doctor, who advises her that hysteria solves nothing. Solid advice right from a groundbreaking medical research study of the 1960s. The doctor is surprisingly helpful beyond this, attempting to dissect the reasons for Mary’s visions. Channeling David Rose to explain that she doesn’t want to be close to people, Mary is relatable indeed.
Finally unable to resists the allure of the pavilion, Mary explores the structure at last, finding her life becoming increasingly surreal. Falling into a trance-like state while playing the organ, Mary begins playing music deemed terribly offensive by the pastor, who fires her on the spot. Meeting up with John, Mary is distant and miserable but afraid to be alone with her visions, real or imagined. After John gets fed up with Mary’s neuroses and she spends the night rearranging the furniture, Mrs. Thomas contacts the doctor. However, Mary is disinclined to seek help; rather, she’s utterly determined to leave town. But as unfortunate circumstances arise at her every attempt to escape, it seems Mary may be inexorably guided back to the pavilion. What horrors await her there?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
Achieving cult classic status, our film is an impressive achievement, and its influence is massive. Many of the techniques and themes feel quite contemporary. There are a lot of moments where this feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, and I do not at all object to this. Things are legendarily low budget for this film, so we are relying heavily on empty spaces, close-ups, and quiet moments of dread (as well as dramatic organ music) to create a highly atmospheric tale. One scene where Mary’s doctor turns around to reveal himself as the ghost man is not the most surprising for its existence in so many subsequent films, but no less effective. Perhaps due to the low budget and lack of prestige, I can see how this film was easily overshadowed by Hitchcock in its time. We’ve got many of the same elements that make for a suspenseful watch, and star Candace Hilligoss looks so much like a Hitchcock leading lady.
Personally, I find the complexity of the film’s themes and thoughtfulness of its messages most compelling. There are a number of ways to interpret director Herk Harvey’s film. First, it’s an effective exploration of post-modern existential dread and isolation. Mary both seeks out and fears being alone–when she’s around other people, Mary is limited by their expectations and assumptions. As something of an outsider, she experiences a great deal of anxiety to essentially conform or die. At the same time, there are a lot of instances in which being around people is the only thing between Mary and truly terrifying thoughts and experiences, and this tension is highly effective in creating suspense. There are more specific anxieties to unpack as well, including those around mental illness, gender roles, and workplace expectations. I find Mary’s relationship to the supposedly passion-driven field of music refreshingly honest–if a bit depressing that it’s been so long that we’ve been telling ourselves the lie that work is a thing we should love.
I will say there were some limitations that prevented me from bumping up this rating a bit higher. First, there are times when the low budget does become noticeable…particularly in the acting department. Mary’s wide-eyed stares of horror carry a huge amount of the film, but some of the performances are less than convincing (except my love for the director as lead creepy ghoul will never die). I also hoped some of the elements and themes would be fleshed out a bit more and create more cohesion–there is a sense that the production ran out of money and rushed to the dramatic twist ending at a certain point. And the amount of screen time John gets is effective, but I still wish he had been written off earlier or met with a more gruesome ending. The men who do awful things in the film walk away largely unscathed–which I do feel makes a surprisingly forward-thinking feminist argument…but is still frustrating.
On a side note, I thought it was quite progressive that Mary shopped for secondhand clothes–I can think of virtually no other films where characters thrift shop for clothes unless it’s to make a point about how cool and quirky they are.
Overall, even though I love to be a contrarian, I can’t argue there’s a very good reason this film has a reputation as a well-loved cult classic.