Carnival of Souls review (1962, dir. Herk Harvey)

Where do zombies come from? West African and Haitian folklore might be somewhere to start, but I was thinking of the Hollywood zombie, the shambling wretches whose genesis was first witnessed in George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. They owe a debt, or at least an offering of brains, to Herk Harvey and his only feature length film, Carnival of Souls.
Caked in sodden silt and muddy water, Mary crawls from a river, escaping a car plunged from the bridge above. Staggering dazedly away she appears unable to believe she lived through the accident. Restarting her life, she flees town to find new work as a church organist. Lodging in Salt Lake City, she succumbs to strange ‘episodes’; fading out of existence, invisible to the townsfolk, as all sound drains away. When she eventually slips back into reality, it is obvious something has altered her. Mary has also developed an unhealthy fascination with an abandoned seaside pavilion nearby.
Then a strange man appears at a distance, watching. He is gaunt and pale with black circles around his eyes. Here we witness our first glimpse of the look Romero would appropriate for his zombies. ‘The Man’ is a malignant presence, unseen by others and hounding Mary when she is at her most vulnerable.
More of these haunted entities rise from the ground and the water, pursuing her. As these uncanny forces block her every move, she is driven mad and cornered inside the pavilion itself where she learns her fate.
Carnival of Souls is an undeniably unsettling influence in the history of horror on film but it is far from perfect. There are some shocking instances of amateur acting and ham-fisted scripting. Witness the toe-curling, self-conscious way the local workers stop their work on cue and listen to Mary’s organ playing. Or the heavy-handed irony of the church warden telling Mary she needs to play with more soul.
Then there are performances that add texture to a simple tale. Mr Linden from the neighbouring apartment watches Mary with a voyeuristic gaze. His predatory intrusion represents a real world threat to Mary. Linden contrasts awkwardly with the plainly moralistic folk elsewhere in town. Hiligloss is adequately haughty and haunted as the heroine and carries the film well.
There are flashes of directorial brilliance, such as the transposing of the car dashboard with the knobs on the church organ, or the ghoulish reflection of The Man in the car window at night, a great example of special-effects done on a small budget. And the unforgettable climax with its dancing ghouls pirouetting before the camera. Harvey’s creative talent was possibly nurtured on German Expressionist cinema, as there are touches of Nosferatu’s Count Orlock in the long shadows cast by The Man as he enters the church.
And no appraisal of Carnival of Souls would be complete without mention of the arresting score, composed almost entirely of organ music and played by Gene Moore which accentuates the horror by being unnervingly oppressive.
In the end, Carnival of Souls plays like a short story from a Creepy or Eerie comic-magazine from the 1950s, complete with obligatory O. Henry twist ending. It is at once unforgettably haunting and almost laughably simplistic in its outlook. Yet in this tale the seeds were sown of a cinematic heritage that survives to this day, the modern zombie.
Unfortunately Harvey never made another feature length film and after its release, Carnival of Soulslapsed into obscurity. Rediscovered in the 80s and playing late at night on TV, it found new audiences and continues to this day to exert a freakish power over the viewer.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me review (1992, dir. David Lynch)

Reviled by many critics and ignored by audiences, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) has unjustly slipped under many film fans’ radars. Dig below the surface, scrape away years of dirt, and you’ll reveal a rich and multifaceted cinematic gem.
Sitting down to watch TPFWWM again, I am reminded of two things. First: it is one of David Lynch’s finest films as a director, and second: it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, despite the fact it has never been categorised as such and you’ll never find it in the horror section of your local online video download store-hub.
Serving as a prequel to Twin Peaks, the TV series, TPFWWM tells one story that operates on two distinct levels. The film assembles the facts behind the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life, a high school prom queen played with tortured fatalism by Sheryl Lee. Key to understanding Laura is the revelation of the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of the mysterious “Bob”.

Overlaid like an acetate cartoon-cell on top of the very everyday town of Twin Peaks, is the supernatural world of The Black Lodge. This is a place outside of conventional space and time whose inhabitants sometimes leave to live in a small room above a convenience store. These entities exist to inflict pain on humankind, the suffering represented by the creamed corn they consume with each soul. They release one of their own, Bob, to possess someone close to Laura with the intention of corrupting her and condemning her to torment in The Black Lodge. An equally valid counter-interpretation is that this is only in the mind of the actual perpetrator of these acts.
Our film opens on a TV screen displaying static. An axe thuds abruptly into the TV as sparks fly and a woman screams. This violently demonstrates that Twin Peaks the TV show is in the Past. Dead. Finished.
In the FBI’s Philadelphia headquarters, David Bowie’s Agent Jeffries appears for a few minutes, after 2 years missing in the field. Jeffries points accusingly at Cooper (a clue to his eventual fate) and proceeds to explain to the assembled agents of his imprisonment in The Black Lodge and the creatures he met there. Jeffries attended one of their meetings to decide the fate of Laura Palmer at the cost of his soul. His tale told, he promptly disappears again.
Meanwhile, in an unfriendly town which appears to be the emotional opposite of Twin Peaks, Agent Chet Desmond, played by Chris Issac, accompanied by Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland channelling Stan Laurel) investigate the murder of Theresa Banks. As Desmond closes in on the otherworldly fate of girls claimed by Bob, he too disappears without trace.
There are several scenes in TPFWWM which are instantly cinematic, unique and bold enough to distance the film from its broadcast heritage. The 10-minute “Pink Room” sequence takes place in a sleazy bar, almost all sound drowned out by pounding, rhythmic music. We can nearly discern snippets of dialogue but the overall effect is exactly the same as trying to hold a drunken, dreamy conversation in a noisy bar or club. The result is hypnotic, unsettling and ultimately leads to one of Laura’s redemptive acts as she saves her friend from a similar fate to her own. (Later DVD releases have subtitles come up at this point, but I know that the original European cinema print has no subtitles and the atmosphere it conjures is all the better for not having them.)
In another powerful scene we encounter Bob in Laura’s bedroom. The intrusion is so unexpected and visceral that we cannot still our hearts from leaping when it comes. Maybe it’s because we don’t expect the standard jumps and scares of a standard horror film here, that we are so taken aback by this.
Lynch has always been a great and unique sound designer. The eerie and omnipresent industrial rumble over Eraserhead springs to mind, or the noise the cadaver makes when moved early on inTPFWWM. When Laura and her father are accosted by a one-armed man on the road into town, his insane screeching and the revving of the car engine combine to drown out the words in a deafening overload of hate and anger.
Yes, you may gain slightly more satisfaction fromTPFWWM if you’ve seen Twin Peaks the series, and for fans of the television show most of the major players do appear in cameos, but as a stand-alone film concerning abuse, incest, loss of identity and the downwards spiral of a confused high-school girl, it is brave and fearless. As a fable about possession and evil inflicted by spirits from another world, an inter-dimensional war between gods centring on a small town and a supernatural horror, it is also triumphant. A game of two halves certainly, but both will chill, disturb and unnerve you more than most so-called horror films out there.