Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

soulsThe first time I watched Carnival of Souls, I was planning to make fun of it.

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

I had borrowed a DVD of this Public Domain film with a humorous commentary track by the Rifftrax guys (whom you might know best as Crow, Servo, and Mike from Mystery Science Theater 3000). These fellows routinely lampoon atrocious B-movies and deliver the kind of cathartic belly laughs that sustain me through this drab existence. So, I popped Carnival of Souls in and braced myself for an evening of comedy.

CUT TO: me, lying awake that night in cold sweats. Serves me right for wanting to dismiss a cult classic.

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While watching the movie, I didn’t even crack a smile. I can’t remember a single joke the Rifftrax boys made. I write that not as an insult to those talented comedians, but rather as an homage to the sublime creepiness of Carnival of Souls. Something about this film shoots you through will a chill that you can’t shake. I mean, I watch a lot of horror films, new and old, and while many have disgusted or disturbed me, few have actually scared me. This is one of them.

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Directed by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker on vacation (who also played the chief ghost), this ambitious indie horror film yanked me into its vertiginous parallel universe. Despite my initial inclination to denigrate the low budget masterpiece, Carnival of Souls immediately impressed me with its stark cinematography. Harvey adroitly manipulated lighting and camera angles to conjure an oppressive sense of doom closing in.

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For instance, in the scene where Mary Henry, presumed dead, staggers out of a riverbed to the astonishment of onlookers, the screen floods with an atmosphere of the uncanny. We know, from the way the sequence is shot, that this woman belongs dead. As Mary stands on the edge of a sandbar, jutting out into the rapidly moving waters, almost an abstracted geometrical form, the world around her seems separate. Open space crowds her.

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Bystanders scramble down from a bridge to meet her, but we see them as tiny, pointless figures, even more dwarfed than Mary. Trauma is etched on these deep focus images that visually convey and anticipate the truth of that famous Toni Morrison line from Beloved, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”

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Carnival of Souls offers many flourishes of unexpected creativity. On a recent rewatching, I noticed how Mary Henry, gazing down at the site of the accident, resembles a ship masthead figure, her Baroque 1960s ’do blown back and lit from below like a waxworks.

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As she reaches for her car ignition, we get a sort of trick match-on-action to her pulling out the stops on an organ. The fluid transition from the interior of her car to the somber beauty of an organ showroom reveals a great deal about her character. Even if the script didn’t clunkily inform us that Mary can’t “put [her] soul” into her career as a church organist, her detachment speaks to us through that false match cut.

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Mary’s visits to the abandoned amusement park wound us with their irony. For instance, her taut, worried face pointedly contrasts with the sensual pin-up girl on a poster. The grids of fences, lattices of shadow, tangles of streamers, and exotic pavilion-style architectural forms combine to create a shifting funhouse of suspense.

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In this movie of eerie silence, I detect a certain homage to silent films, especially when that silence begins to invade the usually bustling daytime world. However, we also see that link with silent films through the use of locations associated with iconic Roaring Twenties amusements. The tawdry dance halls and rotating tumbling cylinders of pre-talkie rom-coms appear as melancholy, strange relics that fragment the screen with disjointed shapes.

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At the risk of sounding rather grim (in contrast to my usual perky self), Carnival of Souls frightens me because it suggests that perhaps in the midst of life we are all actually dead. And that death, far from the state of peaceful repose or blissful ascension we might hope for, is a restless, ashen whirl of numbness.

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Above: Mary with her oily date. Below: Mary in the arms of a ghoul.

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The ever-circling ghouls of the condemned carnival aren’t so different from the living who plod forward in the compulsive pursuit of pleasureless things that they crave only because they’re told to want them. In fact, Mary only demonstrates any real passion in the scene where visions of ghosts torment her; as she practices the organ, she slips into a montage of dissociation. The first time she plays “with soul,” she gets castigated for blasphemy and fired! Paradoxically, it’s contact with the dead that can make her come to life.

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Why else select an abandoned amusement park, the real-life resort pavilion at Saltair, as the locus of terror? Deserted places of recreation possess an aura which unsettles me more than memorials to some tragedy or other. We brace ourselves for the presence of death in locations scarred by suffering and, thus armed, can sometimes emerge unscathed and unmoved. However, the ruins of a place that once echoed with laughter and joy remind us of the predestined end to all our amusements. The knowledge that sorrow could last forever haunts us less than the realization that pleasure (or a reasonable facsimile) doesn’t last very long at all.

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Director Herk Harvey explained that he wanted to make a movie in the art house vein, citing Bresson and Bergman as influences. Indeed, like a lot of European art films made around the same time, Carnival of Souls works at digesting the gristly concept of alienation. This film scares us on a metaphysical level; its shocks are not of the “Boo!” ilk alone. Instead it jolts us into an heightened awareness of everyday isolation, of the futility and awkwardness of “normal” human interactions.

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When we look into the grotesque chalky faces of the undead, we’re not as horrified by them as we are by the possibility that we might see our own faces among them.

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Carnival of Souls may strike modern viewers as somewhat tame. However, if you sit back and let it wash over you with an open mind, I think it’ll strike a chord with almost anyone. The piercing organ score, the blanched, smeary faces of the phantoms, the contamination of ordinary locations, and the depiction of destiny as a kind of cosmic Chinese finger trap will eat away at you. When you’re in a church at night. When you’re out shopping. When you’re driving down a lonely highway. When you’re somewhere that connects you to the past.

Even if you want, as I did, to chuckle at Carnival of Souls, I suspect that its coven of ghouls will have the last laugh.

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Carnival of Souls is in the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. Enjoy!

Fifty Shades of (Dorian) Gray: In Honor of Albert Lewin

Today, September 23, marks the birthday of Albert Lewin. Old Allie wrote the screenplay for and directed a film that I love, the 1945 M-G-M adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which does not get nearly the respect it deserves. He was an extraordinary guy and I’d like to take a few moments to remember him and this remarkable film.

You see, Lewin was an intellectual. In studio Hollywood. In the 1940s. Quite the rara avis.

Lewin, right, with George Sanders and Lowell Gilmore on the set of Dorian. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1894, he served in World War I infantry, got his undergraduate degree at New York University, and earned his M.A. in English from Harvard. He was going to become a professor.

Then he saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

That screening was an epiphany for the young scholar, heralding cinema as the next great expressive medium. As a recovering academic myself, I consider Lewin’s decision to commit himself to cinema, thus totally changing the course of his life, pretty damn brave.

Remember, it wasn’t until much, much later in the 20th century when academic circles began to accept cinema widely as an art!

So, Lewin travelled to California, worked as a reader and script clerk. Irving Thalberg, also a pretty erudite fellow, saw a kindred spirit in Lewin and took him on as his personal assistant. After Thalberg died, Lewin moved around a bit, then returned to M-G-M, this time to direct.

However, rather than making the pretentious, stilted teacup dramas or “idea movies” you might expect from a would-be-professor-turned-Hollywood-man, Lewin served up some of the most delightfully decadent, bizarro, lurid literary adaptations of all time. And his operatic/mythological mash-up drama Pandora and the Flying Dutchman foreshadowed the appropriation of classical characters that we notice so often in blockbusters these days (except that Lewin’s mash-up was actually good.)

So, I’d just like to take a moment to lay out why I believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great—and, no, I don’t throw that word around lightly—film, as well as a great adaptation, worthy of more scrutiny and love than it gets.

Firstly, Dorian Gray does a brilliant job of seizing on M-G-M’s dominant aesthetic—the “house style,” as some would say—and recasting it, twisting it for darkness, horror, and expressionism. Let’s face it, we remember the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s at M-G-M for escapist mega-productions, many of which arguably haven’t aged too well.

They’re so glossy, frilly, and extravagant that they often pale in comparison to the gritty realism of Warner Brothers or the Continental sparkle of Paramount, for instance.

Lewin seems to have been acutely aware of this disadvantage. Dorian Gray, after all, was publicized as a horror film, and it would have been hard to dispute Universal as tops in the horror game. So, rather than trying for the full-on Gothic frisson, Lewin manipulates and reinvents the trappings of M-G-M glamour, slowly inching towards depravity.

Through Lewin’s careful low-key shadings and his faithfulness to the perversity of Wilde’s characters, it’s almost as though the M-G-M look becomes Dorian Gray: cold, soulless, a world of shiny, gleaming surfaces—harboring evil and corruption beneath.

Lewin slowly immerses Dorian’s swanky, polished Edwardian townhouse in shadows and contorts it with oblique angles and striking framings that call attention to their own flamboyance.

Lewin’s brand of horror is a hedonistic, alluring one, a far cry from the sparse, trench-like textures of Whale or the carnavalesque or Gothic tones set by Browning.

 An exotic dancer performing at one of Dorian’s opulent parties.

For instance, take this glorious shot above. So, for some context, Dorian (played by the eerily beautiful Hurd Hatfield) wants to test the virtue of the common girl, Sybil (Angela Lansbury), whom he’s been courting. He tells her that he wants her to spend the night with him. She refuses and he says that if she won’t he doesn’t want to see her again. She walks to the door but then returns when she hears Dorian playing Chopin the piano.

Here, we see her reenter Dorian’s parlor, at the top left corner of the frame, vulnerable, tiny, incomplete, pathetic. The first of Dorian’s victims. Yet, the multiple patterns mingling with shadows give the image a heady glamour, a beauty that’s positively anxiety-inducing.

In the best scene in the film, Basil Hallward, who painted Dorian’s portrait, goes to Dorian’s former childhood playroom where the canvas has been hidden—and sees how the picture has transformed to represent Dorian’s soiled soul.

Dorian panics and (SPOILER) stabs Basil to death. As Dorian makes up his mind to slaughter his friend, the camera tracks in, creeping towards him like a sense of dread. Then there’s a marvelous jump cut to a close-up of Hurd Hatfield’s masklike visage at the exact moment when he decides to grab a penknife at hand and do the deed.

As he does so, he knocks against a hanging lamp which swings back and forth during the struggle, rapidly oscillating between dark and light, dark and light. It’s pure cinema. The changes in lighting are anchored to the mise-en-scene and thus avoid a kind of stuffy symbolism, but still suggest the forces of good and evil warring within Dorian.

On a purely visual level, the manic switching between brightness and shadow attacks the viewer’s eye and produces a simple but undeniable sensation of terror. (Think Touch of Evil‘s flashing neon murder scene or Psycho‘s swinging lightbulb, only more than a decade before!)

Then there’s the fact that the violence is set in a former nursery, which drives home the corrupted innocence of Dorian. Little details imbue the scene with an acid commentary on the loss of the Dorian’s boyish likability, lost since he exchanged his conscience for eternal youth.

As Basil expires, we see his bloody hand fall limply onto a set of ABC building blocks. Dorian even wipes the blood off his hands with an old piece of embroidery, bearing the cheery, childish line, “Oh Little Boy Blue Come Blow Your Horn!” We can hardly believe that our antihero was ever a child, was ever a human being. He is utterly divorced from his self.

All in all, I cannot say enough to recommend this chilling, very influential scene, what with making the lighting part of the violence.

And, in 1945, with the Production Code in full force, Albert Lewin still managed to insert a scene where Dorian visits a dilapidated bar/opium-den/whorehouse. Even though none of these vices are mentioned, every crack in the wall exhales degradation.

Ratty prostitutes sit around talking up drunkards and an old man sits playing Chopin on a tinny piano. It is where all goodness and decency comes to die. Meanwhile, Dorian floats through in his spotless tuxedo and cape, a gentleman slummer in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Dorian runs into Adrian Singleton (Morton Lowry, who didn’t act in much, but when he did, you noticed), a former friend whom he’d ruined by association. Adrian is onscreen for about 5 minutes, but the setting, the camera angles, and the performance all flawlessly communicate the feeling of being among the damned, of looking into the eyes of a lost soul.

Adrian could sing, write, and draw—but now he languishes in a stupor in some chancrous drug den. This might be a stretch, but he reminds me of the kinds of broken dreamers you’ll find all around Tinseltown, the victims of our collective fantasies.

Meanwhile, Dorian retains his M-G-M sheen, but in the midst of filth and regrets, the audience realizes that, despite the antihero’s veneer of youth and perfection, this is where he belongs. He has unconsciously sought out the place that exteriorizes his soul. The smooth grace and elegance of his London house don’t suit him anymore. Like him, those appearances are a sham.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also displays several other genius touches, like the fact that the movie is black-and-white, but the portrait appears in phantasmagoric Technicolor: at first Adonis-like, then nightmarish.

Then there’s the dialogue, in which Lewin preserved much of Wilde’s sinful satire, with lines like, “I like persons better than principles and persons with no principles best of all.” I must say, the occasional voice-over narration may not appeal to everyone, but I would argue that it’s necessary to suggest some of the complexity (and depravity) of the source material.

I applaud how well Lewin managed to preserve the sophisticated wickedness of Wilde’s novel. There’s no cackling. No abductions of maidens. Just temptation and the idea that, once a man is separated from the consequences of his choices, he loses his self. Life becomes an inferno of pleasure, a looping itinerary of degradation.

And then, there’s the cultural richness of the allusions in the film. How many 1940s Hollywood films can you list that reference, among other things, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the Buddha, the aria “La Ci Darem La Mano” from Don Giovanni, Chopin’s Les Preludes, and Omar Kayyám’s Rubáiyát?

To interject an added element of the supernatural into the film, Lewin adds an Egyptian cat statue to explain the mystical transference of Dorian’s soul to the painting. I know that sounds arbitrary… but then, later in the movie, Dorian recites a poem about cats by Wilde that’s not part of the original novel, but which fits in perfectly with the feverishly poetic ambiance of the movie.

You can tell that the man at the helm would have been a fantastic literature professor if he hadn’t discovered film. But thank heaven he did.

The dapper Lewin, right, with Jack Cardiff.