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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Carnival of Souls, or: Ghosted

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.

The Film:

Carnival of Souls

The Premise:

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.

The Ramble:

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.

A woman looks distressed as she is wrapped in a blanket, looking at the river she was rescued from. A group of men stand behind her, impassive.

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.

A man and woman sit on a sofa, drinking cups of coffee. The man leans forward slightly, smiling, while the woman leans away.

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.

A man sits at a desk in his office, looking expectantly at a woman sitting in a chair nearby. She looks down towards the ground, her expression pained.

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?

The Rating:

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.

Would my blog wife follow this one to a creepy abandoned pavilion or drive off without looking back? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Troll 2, or: The Family That Summons Together

I’m quite happy to skip most media that reliably generates memes, especially since becoming a meme or a gif seems to be an end unto itself. As loyal readers of this blog know (all…3.5 of you?), your Blog Collab writers are deeply resentful of films like Sharknado that exist exclusively for the social media buzz. So even though I’ve seen Troll 2 appear on its share of top 10 B-movie lists, I’ve largely ignored it since I’ve seen a boatload of memes from the film. I’ve gotten all of the highlights, right?

How wrong I have been.

The Film:

Troll 2

The Premise:

While vacationing in a small, rural town with his family, a boy sees visions of his grandfather warning him of the imminent threat of goblins.

The Ramble:

As far as bedtime stories go, Grandpa Seth spins a yarn that ranges from disturbingly dark to…even darker. Cautioning young Joshua Waits about the very real dangers of goblins, he warns that goblins may disguise themselves and will encourage humans to eat foods that will turn them into edible plant people. The moral of the story is that goblins will fuck you up for no reason–a refreshingly post-modern theme for a children’s tale. Making matters worse, Grandpa Seth has been dead for months, properly freaking out Joshua’s mother as her child continues to have conversations with the man.

A close-up on grandpa Seth shows an elderly man with a beard looking intensely into the distance, a child in pajamas reclined on a bed in the background.

Hoping to enjoy time away together in the countryside, the family is swapping houses for a month to stay in the idyllic small town of Nilbog. (And just in case you didn’t catch it, don’t worry–our film will dramatically reveal the shocking surprise that “Nilbog” is goblin spelled backwards.) Added bonus here? The trip should distract troubled Joshua and remove older sister Holly from the influence of “bad boy” Elliott. As far as a I can tell, Elliott’s reputation comes from the fact that he does nothing but hang around with his friend gang all day. This is a point of contention between Holly and Elliott, and apparently a good reason to throw around some casual homophobia. Our film is from 1990, but it’s still pretty jarring.

Though Holly invites Elliott to vacation with her family, she makes it clear that his friends are not welcome to come along. As it turns out, Elliott and his friends have rented an RV and plan to surprise the Waits family by meeting them in Nilbog.

A group of goblinshuddle over their victim. The goblins are short human-like creatures with white hair covering their faces, large noses, and oversized pointy ears.

When the Waits crew arrive at their vacation home, the family who live there eerily leave without saying a word. However, it’s not long before the Waitses feel at home, especially since there is a delicious (albeit oddly green) meal ready for them to enjoy. Grandpa Seth warns Joshua that the family must not eat the meal, so Joshua devises a disgusting plan to intervene, though points for creativity. Joshua’s father pulls the ultimate “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” power move with a lecture about how he grew up in poverty legitimately going hungry many nights.

Meanwhile, Elliott’s buddy Arnold, the face that launched 1,000 memes, notices a young woman running through the woods in terror. When goblins catch up to the two, Arnold confidently tells them to get lost, presuming they are a group of costumed weirdos. This seems to pay off initially…until a goblin lobs a spear his way. Fleeing the goblins again, the pair winds up in a creepy church that is now the home of iconic druid queen Creedence. Though it seems Creedence will be an unlikely savior, she in fact has a sinister hidden agenda…oh my GODDDDDDDDDDDD.

Arnold, a teen with blond hair and large glasses, screams with a sweat-soaked face. There is a housefly on his forehead.

The next day, the group of guys and the Waits family are in need of provisions. On the way to the town store, the sheriff offers one of Elliott’s friends a GREEN SANDWICH, which he eats without hesitation. It feels like a major sign of privilege that this dude automatically thinks any food proffered by law enforcement will definitely be safe to consume, even if it’s fucking GREEN. At the shop, the only thing available is special fortified Nilbog milk, which is suspiciously free of cost. The extremely helpful and friendly locals relay a message from Arnold that essentially boils down to “Meet me in the creepy house in the woods.” Sure sounds like Arnold!

Creedence, a woman with dark eye makeup and oversized glasses, gestures dramatically over her shoulder as two worried teens look on.

While in town with his father, Joshua stumbles across a goblin church service, which is sort of a Southern Baptist-inspired gathering with the congregation’s ire focused on eating flesh. Unwittingly drawing attention to himself while snooping, Joshua narrowly misses being force-fed Nilbog ice cream.

That evening, as the goblins tire of biding their time, they hold an impromptu gathering at the vacation home under the guise of folksy smalltown generosity. As Joshua learns, it’s always a good thing to have the spirit of your deceased grandfather around to supply you with Molotov cocktails in case a group of goblins pressures you to choose between a quick death and a slow, violent one.

Will the Waits family manage to defeat the goblin army or will they be reminded that you don’t piss on hospitality?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

A purely subjective rating based on my own personal enjoyment of this film. Is this the well-crafted, moving work of art that is Portrait of a Lady on Fire? God no. Is it going to occupy a similar amount of space in my brain? Probably.

Of course, it’s extremely irritating to have homophobia join the party here. And I don’t completely understand the hostility towards vegetarians that seems to be on display throughout the film. It’s also reasonably distracting that a film with trolls in the title is about…goblins. But overall, I did enjoy this one so much more than anticipated. There’s a good reason this is considered a cult classic.

Once I started watching, I couldn’t look away. Things are obviously extremely low budget, and the acting is as stilted as expected. But it’s actually quite funny (more or less intentionally), and some of the effects are surprisingly gross. It doesn’t hurt that the unsettlingly friendly group of strangers becoming increasingly sinister is one of my favorite horror setups.

I haven’t even really given Creedence her due in this review, as she is truly a legend amongst cult classic villains. She is living my dream life, minus the oddly sexy popcorn scene with an actual teenager. But her unhinged maniacal energy along with her preference for plants over people make me absolutely root for her.

Special mentions to Holly’s extremely ’90s Garfield astrology sleepwear, as well as Grandpa Seth’s odd Orson Welles vibe.

TL;DR: if you don’t like Troll 2, you’re wrong.

Would my goblin queen toast this one with a glass of Nilbog milk or conspire to defeat it with a surprisingly violent spirit guide? Find out in her review!