Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 21

Carnival of Souls (1962)

As I’ve watched a lot of weird stuff this Halloween, I’ve made continued references to enjoying locally produced films. When movies were made totally outside the studio system, they often displayed the deeply personal viewpoints of their creative, committed filmmakers. The lucky films were the ones that were rediscovered as low budget oddities. Most were totally forgotten. Occasionally, a genuine classic would sneak out of the world of outsider cinema. “Carnival of Souls” is one such classic. An odd-ball combination of art house aspiration and industrial film making starkness, the film has endured as an eerie landmark of low budget movie-making.

Mary is out on a Sunday drive with some girlfriends. A car full of guys challenges them to a race. The vehicle plummets off a bridge and everyone inside drowns… Except for Mary. Soon afterwards, she moves to Salt Lake City to play the organ in a church. On the road, Mary is haunted by the apparition of a pale, grinning man in a suit. The spectre pursues her every turn. While in Utah, Mary is drawn to Saltair, an abandoned carnival on the beach. There, the spirits of the dead rise from their watery graves, pulling people into a macabre dance. And the ghosts want Mary to join their dance.

In the early days of my internet surfing, I came upon a long-since-gone website called Barbara Jo’s review of “Carnival of Souls” was especially insightful and I’m probably going to pillage it some here. “Carnival of Souls” is a film about fears: Fear of death, fear of sex, fear of religion, fear of not being noticed. Mary describes herself as a loner. It’s odd that she’s introduced with friends, as she spends much of the movie alone. The script never outright says if Mary is an atheist but, at the very least, she’s ambivalent about religion. This rejection of faith eventually gets her ejected from her organist job. She rejects men, having no interest in a boyfriend, sex, or love. The man who lives across the hall, John Linden, is an especially sleazy suitor. He spies on her as she gets dressed. He barges into her room in the morning. While the two are out, he gets drunk and calls her frigid. Afterwards, he kisses her. Every time, she rejects him. The ghostly man who pursues her often approaches with open arms. At one point, he appears with his head on her shoulder, smiling impishly. At the carnival, all of the ghost dance in couples. Except for the Man. He wants Mary. As much as Mary rejects the human world, it beckons to her, demanding she participate in the rituals of friendship, romantic love, and sex.

Sex leads to maturity and maturity, inevitably, leads to death. Which is what “Carnival of Souls” primarily concerns itself with. The movie’s twist ending is probably well known but look away now if you haven’t seen it: Mary didn’t survive the car crash at the beginning. Whether or not Mary is a ghost or the film is her dying fantasy is left ambiguous. If death = sex, then Mary’s avoidance of relationship also means she’s dodging death. Every time the Man approaches her, she flees. Yet he always has a way of catching up with her. He’ll appear outside her car window, in the stairway of her apartment, or in the pews of the church. No matter how much we run, death always has a way of catching up with us. The “Mary is a ghost” theory is supported by long scenes where she is seemingly cut off from the world. It’s as if no one can see or hear her. The only people who interact with her are the pasty faced ghouls she is frightened of. In an odd way, the movie grants her wish of being alone. When isolated from the world, she suddenly finds herself afraid. Mary is a classic anxious personality type. She rejects companionship yet longs for it all the same.

Obviously, “Carnival of Souls” can be read from different allegorical angles. But perhaps the film is most successful as an eerie, disquieting horror picture. The make-up for the ghostly Man and the other lost souls is simple as can be. Somehow, the white corpse paint becomes unnerving, when shot by the proper eye. There are long scenes in “Carnival of Souls” with no dialogue. Instead, they are powered by Gene Moore’s unquestionably creepy organ score. While playing the instrument in church, Mary’s mind wanders to Saltair. We see the dead people emerge from the waters, wet, starring, but smiling. In alternating slow or fast motion, the couples dance around the room, spinning in circles. The filmmakers came upon a true prize with the real life, abandoned Saltair Pavilion. The empty, dreary halls of the carnival grounds have a still air about them. Even on film, you can sense the eerie quality of this place. The climax, where Mary is finally drawn into the dance, is the film at its most powerfully odd. The black and white images flicker across the screen, feeling as much like a nightmare as a movie.

Candance Hilligoss has the difficult task of being both cold, uneasy, panicked, and frightened. She succeeds in that goal. Writer/director Herk Harvey had a long history making industrial and educational films. This gifted the movie with an austere, grounded-in-reality feeling. At the same time, the director strived for an artistic, dream-like quality. The two moods combine to make “Carnival of Souls” a surreal, unnerving horror classic. It’s a haunting peak into the mind of a nervous woman who feels no acceptance even when among the dead. [9/10]

Lovers Lane (2000)

Blogging is not an exact science, you guys. Especially not during these autumn months when I’m watching two or three movies a day. When I’m doing a theme, I usually procure the films I’ll be talking about before hand. Sometimes though, there are mix-ups. “Lovers Lane,” a post-“Scream” slasher I wanted to see, proved a surprisingly tricky movie to get a hold off. My local rental store, where I can first recall seeing it on the shelves years back, didn’t have it. It wasn’t available through any streaming service, legal or otherwise. (In English anyway. It’s up on Youtube in unsubtitled French, which didn’t help me much.) I had to rely on my Netflix by-mail service, where the movie had a “very long wait.” This usually translates to “We don’t know when you’ll get it.” Well, Netflix came through and “Lovers Lane” arrived in my mail box today. Was this little movie worth the hassle?

In 1987, a man and a woman were brutally murdered at the local lovers’ lane by an escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand. Neither victim was with their spouse. Thirteen years later, the children of the slaughtered adults are now teenagers. Mandy is a shy outcast while Michael just dumped his girlfriend, the most popular girl in school. As its Valentine’s Day, the teens are planning a party down at lovers’ lane. Naturally, the hook-handed madman escapes again. He’s headed back to lovers’ lane with murder on his mind. Can Mandy’s dad, the police chief, and Michael’s mom, the high school principal, rescue their kids in time?

“Lovers Lane” was obviously made to cash in on the success of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Urban Legend.” Despite the hook wielding villain and urban legend-inspired premise, “Lovers Lane” doesn’t resemble either film that much. Instead, it has more in common with eighties slasher flicks. It embraces the clichés of the genre, with the “crime in the past” opening, the killer smashing through a door or the incompetent cops following the teens around. Mostly, the movie’s cast of goofy teen characters is what most reminds of those beloved flicks from the eighties. Erin J. Dean’s Mandy is believably mousy, with a sarcastic edge. Billy O’Sullivan plays Doug, the joker character who is a lovable loser. Sarah Lancaster is amusingly bitchy as evil popular girl Chloe. The only recognizable name in the cast is Anna Faris, who is wonderfully charming as bubbly cheerleader Jannelle. Not all the characters are that memorable. There’s an indistinct couple and boring hero Michael. The characters and performances are broad but in a likable, kind of funny way.

“Lovers Lane’s” plot is essentially split in two halves. The first half follows the teen as they’re tracked down by the killer, picked off one-by-one. The other half follows the the sheriff and the principal as they sleuth around. This story line is actually a lot of fun. Soap opera actor Matt Riedy is believable as the sheriff. In one of her two screen credits, Suzanne Bouchard is surprisingly funny as the principal. One scene has her punching out a drunken teenager at the bowling alley. While investigating an abandoned house, they nearly shoot each other. Their subplot eventually spirals down into utter ridiculousness. After the film’s story is seemingly wrapped up, there’s a total of three different reveals of who the killer is. At least one of them is totally baffling. (One of them you can be easily guessed by looking at which major character is absent throughout most of the film.) The killer’s motivation is even more random. However, watching Riedy and Bouchard have adventures made me smile in a silly, dumb kind of way more often then I would’ve expected.

What I liked about “Lovers Lane” is its tone of simple, stupid enjoyment and goofy characters. But how does it fare as a hack-and-slash picture? The gore isn’t very explicit. Mostly, we see the bodies of victims killed off-screen, some Karo syrup leaking from their mouths. Maybe this off-screen approach is best, since the goriest death looks like a water balloon full of red food dye was tossed into a car window. While “Lovers Lane” is far more charming then “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the studio movie had the cooler looking hook-hand killer. The prison uniform, ski-mask, and hood combo this slasher wears isn’t very inspired. While the film is light on the red stuff, it fulfills the other end of the exploitation movie promise. The movie begins with some female nudity and features more of it as it goes on. So it has that going for it. There’s also an apparent call-back to “The Hills Have Eyes,” in the form of a familiar-looking booby trap.

I bet a lot of people with laugh off “Lovers Lane.” The movie’s production levels are strictly low budget. Half the story takes place in a nondescript farm house, for example. The script is silly and cliched. The characters are an exaggerated lot. One man’s criticisms is another man’s amusement. “Lovers Lane” is the kind of dumb slasher movie snack that definitely appeals to me. Let me return the disc to Netflix in a timely manner, so that others may enjoy its goofball allure. [7/10]

The Hairy Hands (2010)

The first time I heard the legend of the Hairy Hands of Dartmorr was in Daniel Cohen’s book, “Monsters You’ve Never Heard Of.” I hadn’t thought about that ghost story in years. Until the other day when, browsing Doug Bradley’s IMDb page, I saw this short film listed there. Sounds like good Halloween viewing to me! The short is about a man, who has abandoned his wife and child and made off with some work money, driving down the desolate country roads of Dartmorr. While fighting off sleep, he listens to a radio program discussing the Hairy Hands: Ghostly hands that appear on the road, wrenching drivers’ hands off their steering wheels. The man doesn’t take the story seriously until he encounters the Hairy Hands himself.

“The Hairy Hands” is presented in an interesting fashion. It’s a stop motion film shot with real actors on green-screen sets. So the performers move in an intentionally jerky fashion, presented among animated, otherworldly backgrounds. Considering the film is mostly just a guy driving his car, this is certainly an interesting way to enliven the material. There’s very little spoken dialogue in the film, most of the words coming via voice-over. (That’s where Doug Bradley comes in.) When the Hairy Hands appear, it’s initially startling. However, since the whole movie is shot in this odd fashion, it doesn’t make the similarly jittering, ghostly hands all that creepy.

The sound design of “The Hairy Hands” is also unusually abrasive. Too much of the short is taken up by annoying static emanating from the radio. In his head, we hear the protagonist arguing with his wife, their screaming baby in the background. None of that is very inviting, is it? Lastly, the main character is a jerk. He’s a thief, an abusive husband, and a deadbeat dad. This means “The Hairy Hands” is a simple story of a bad man being punished. The film had the chance to spin the titular ghosts into avenging spirits or something. It lets that chance slip by. Some obviously creative people worked on “The Hairy Hands.” Maybe a good film could still be made from the Dartmoor legend. Despite the interesting presentation, there’s not enough story or good will here to make this short worth seeking out. [5/10]

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