By Chuck Francisco
August 21, 2013 Source: Mania.com
"B Movie" and "Cult Classic" and bandied about nerd circles with more regularity than PBR and poor taste at the local hipster-a-thon. Yet for all of the wear and tear these terms suffer, they aren't being applied correctly. Roger Corman is known to correct people who've pinned him with the moniker "the king of B movies" by explaining that B films were cheaply made, bottom bill filling pictures, that made the round as part of studio double features. This structure faded into obscurity in the 50's, and though many of Corman's films resemble B movies, they technically are weren't released as the lesser part of double features. Similarly "cult classic" would likely illicit as many definitions as muggles asked. Distiller down to high octane cinematic spirits though, a cult classic is one which was ignored or derided by the mainstream public, but which has built a dedicated and passionate following in the time since its release. While mom and pop mainstream American might mistakenly think Jaws is a cult classic, it's not. Jaws is a cultural icon which redefined summer (every summer) and the way Hollywood works, thus by default it cannot be a cult classic. By comparison The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which tanked out the gate but rode midnight screenings into the history books, is very much a cult classic.
Exasperated, when no recourse of discussion would allow my co-conversationalist to understand what a B Movie is or how cult classic status is earned, I show them Carnival of Souls. Earning bona fide B status by situating itself on the bottom half of the release bill from The Devil's Messenger, and garnering due respect many years after the fact (hence cult classic) Carnival of Souls began life in the mind of educational short filmmaker Herk Harvey (who also sent chills down my childhood spine in the role of "The Man"). Herk spotted the famed Saltair Pavilion while driving through Utah, and the idea for a feature film sprung from his wonderful brain like Athena from Zeus. He would hire an unknown actress, rely on a crew of five, fund raise $33K from local business owners, and shoot the whole haunting piece in three weeks.
The narrative follows Mary (Candace Hilligoss), a cold yet beautiful young organist about to leave for her first real job, playing services at a lavish church. A tragic drag racing plummet leaves her a little shaken up, though not worse enough for the wear to derail her insistent plans for leaving her hometown behind. As she motors her caboose down the nighttime Utah highway, she is plagued by apparitions of The Man, and becomes obsessively transfixed by an abandoned pavilion off in the distance. An unsettling edge lies just below the surface of this atmospheric unsettler thanks to a pervasive and relentless organ score by Gene Moore. Even if you're not one typically taken in by organ music (I'm not), the Carnival of Souls score is haunting, sticking with you long after the house lights ride hot filament back to luminance.
The entire ordeal coalesces to form a creepy, tragic play without leaning on the kind of special effects that it could not afford. As with so many amazing films, the magic is rooted in the makeshift nature of improvisation. Swinging back around to further goose Jaws as an example: the blockbuster is famed for the less is more approach of barely showcasing Bruce the shark, which sprung directly from a finicky, animatronic fish. Instead of the standard grisly shock which forms the meaty membranes of most horror, Carnival of Souls manufactures a surreal nightmare, structurally more connected to 1920's The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari than with any of it's contemporaries.
Unfortunately the copyright situation surrounding the film was, for many years, nearly as murky the picture quality on the substandard home releases. I've only recently become aware of the high quality Criterion edition (wish-listed it for the next 50% off sale), so when the opportunity presented itself to show a near mint 35mm print of Carnival of Souls (for the 50th anniversary, no less), I lit up like a young Bruce Wayne being taken to see The Mark of Zorro. Thankfully my evening didn't end in splashes of blood, scattered pearls, and a lifelong vow of vengeance.
From the first frame it was evident that this simple Fright Night showing would transform into a cult cinema religious experience for me. The establishing white saturation is so deep, and it leads to strong atmospheric contrasts, showcasing a energetically shot film. The credit sequence displays modern sensibilities, with the names of cast and crew angled about around branches and stones among flowing water. The title card demonstrates a director insistent upon his uniquely maudlin vision. In concert with the eerie organ score, these haunting visuals build to an unsettling fervor that is forever memorable, like the Pavilion which the heroine obsesses over.
The Saltair Pavilion location is fascinating in its own right. At the time of filming, it was abandoned because of economic downturn and lack of public interest, then would fall to the arsonist's flame not too many years later. But this was not even the first incarnation of the Pavilion, rather it was the rebuilt version after an electrical fire claimed the original. And its second demise would be met with a third incarnation; one which would be rendered obsolete by Mother Nature almost immediately following its presumably triumphant return. Normally I wouldn't suggest trudging through the virulent muck on the IMDB message boards, but if you find the Saltair Pavilion fascinating, there's a poster who has thrown him or herself headlong into deep historical research on the structure. An absolutely fascinating read, I highly recommend it.
Carnival of Souls is the living, breathing definition of a B Movie Cult Classic. It's readily available for your consumption via a number of streaming sites such as Netflix, but can also be found for free on YouTube and even archive.org. I'm anxiously awaiting the next Criterion sale, to pick up what I've been told is the definitive edition- but I doubt it's going to look as majestic as it did in 35mm. Watch it with the lights off and the sound up!
Want to watch something right now? Check the Screaming Streaming section for suggested viewing which is available right now via the magic of the Internets.
Runtime: 88 minutes
Genre: Sword and Sorcery
Availability: Netflix, Amazon Instant
With full admission that this is a meager budget affair hoping to cash in on the Conan mania rampant at the time, I hold unabashedly nostalgic love for Dearhstalker anyhow. As a staple of early cable channels, it's likely that I've seen this cheapy sword and sorcery epic from Roger Corman's New World Pictures several dozen times. It plays like an early episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, especially the harem brawl scene, but comes equipped with far more toplessness than Kevin Sorbo ever benefitted from. While the budget does show around the edges, this is nevertheless a quickly paced nostalgia throwback, with energetic fight scenes and bare breasts galore. I dare you not to have a good time.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
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