It occurs, of course, only after the car carrying those girls has spilled over the edge of the old bridge and sank into the river. It occurs only after that credit sequence, awash in spectral organ, where titles appear at angles that mirror the branches and roots that loom crookedly above the water’s surface. That’s when we get the image of Mary Henry, hair caked in muck, slightly bowed, arms slightly extended out from her sides, a stunned amphibian creature emerging in some primal state of shock along the muddy banks of the accident site. It’s the traumatic image that everything in Carnival of Souls (1962) can arguably be reduced to. But why reduce it? I’ve seen the movie numerous times since that first midnight screening I caught while in high school at a little prairie art house, back when such screenings were common, and it seems only richer, not the inspired work of atmospheric amateurism I once took it for but something far more knowing and adult and genuinely strange.
So Mary (Candace Hilligoss) walks away from the accident and, after some unseen recovery period, sets out to start a new life in a new town, some god-fearing place in Utah as it happens, where she can play organ in the church—and play the soundtrack to her own movie—and be perfectly anonymous, and lose herself, and live next door to an alcoholic lech who works in a factory and is nearly beside himself with desire for her, egged on by Mary’s capricious, peculiar demeanor, ice cold one day, friendly and needy and maybe even willing the next. He seduces her with coffee and normalness, then later takes her out bowling, but she really just wants to visit the swampy old abandoned palace outside of town, where pale figures beacon to her, rising from the water as if to say, We know where you’re coming from.
When Mary leaves her hometown—actually Lawrence, Kansas, the place William S. Burroughs called home after decades of restlessness—the kindly minister at the church imparts to her how “it takes more than intellect to be a musician—put your soul into it.” But Mary seems so utterly vacant, like she walked out of an audition for Bresson, and anyway she’s not a believer, at least not in the Lord, though the ghosts she catches sight of scare her half to death. Rather than win the hearts of churchgoers, she just wants to hit the right notes—they have a meaning that only she can decipher. She is also an unlikely feminist heroine, setting out by herself in her car, vulnerable but independent, resistant to the patriarchal comforts of fathers, boyfriends, doctors and the church. But there is a price to be paid for going it alone. We learn so little about Mary’s past, but it’s clear that the road trip that brings her to Utah is a flight from one of those “private traps” Norman Bates discussed with Marion Crane just a couple of years previous. If you’ve seen Carnival of Souls, you know just how airtight a trap it is.
I’ve heard it speculated that Colorado-born Herk Harvey directed over four hundred educational and industrial films during his years in Lawrence, and it says a lot about the secret artist in certain people that something so clogged with morose beauty could stay welled up in Harvey during all those years of cranking out documentaries. But who knows? Maybe there are hints of something dynamic and spooky in such titles as What About Drinking? (54), Operation: Grass Killer (61) and Pork: The Meat With a Squeal (63). Harvey made Carnival for an estimated $33,000.00, the production design having been largely provided by a pavilion outside Salt Lake City that caught his eye. The cast were mostly non-professionals, and many of them are quite stiff, delivering flat dialogue that aligns with the odd cutting patterns and the dropping of sound here and there. And it works, and not just as a cult movie. Reality is hardly grounded in this tale and the poverty row mise-en-scène feels as much the product of an aesthetic as necessity. The film remains singular, and not only because Harvey never made another feature.
Like Carnival, Don’t Look Now (73) begins with an accident, and with an image of its protagonist rising up out of murky waters, streaked with the earth that’s under the water, a man rendered monster in a moment of harrowing desperation. Because the film is edited as a sort of hopscotch puzzle, patterned on temporal ripples that evoke a distinctive flashing imagery shared by both an idea of what telepathy must be like and by the nature of the movies, it also, in a sense, can be reduced down to this one image. But reduction is precisely what the story, taken from Daphne Du Maurier, warns against, the title being ironic: look now, damn it, and then look again—you might just be missing something unfathomably important.
I don’t want to over-emphasize the links between these two films, but I do like the fact that in more or less randomly revisiting them in the days leading up to Halloween they revealed these very curious connection points. Nicolas Roeg, to say the least, is a far more consciously artful director than Harvey, with a career that goes all over the place but frequently touched on something like genius, yet at the same time he seemed very careful to invite a great deal of accident and spontaneity while making Don’t Look Now, and the details yielded from this approach just keep paying off when you watch it again. The story concerns John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie), a Canadian and an English woman long married and freshly grieving for a dead child. Though, like Mary, he’s not a believer, John finds work restoring a crumbling church in Venice, a place I can’t imagine why you’d ever visit if you watched the movies—try following this one with The Comfort of Strangers (90). Laura seems unable to revive herself from grief until she meets, accidentally, the two traveling Scottish sisters, one sighted, the other second-sighted, who claim to have news of her dead daughter. They also claim that John has the gift, and that if he’s smart he’ll start to use it.
The portrait of familiar love and shared tragedy between John and Mary is tremendously resonant and moving, even if you don’t entirely respond to the notorious sex scene, inter-cut with other images of domestic behaviour and accompanied by a homey tune. Christie is radiant with hope after she meets the weird sisters and seems more in love with her husband for having gleaned something he hasn’t yet. Sutherland, in that wonderful wig, is very touching in his gentleness and patience while also giving hints of neglect and fear in his reasonableness. That both actors had worked with Robert Altman not long before might go some distance in explaining just how easily they could immerse themselves into their roles, and even more into their surroundings, while still remaining star presences throughout. They are both so subtle and easy with the more portentous demands of the story, such as the early scene where John merely closes a window and causes grit to fly into the blind psychic’s eyes, one of several acts that render him unintentionally culpable for another’s misfortune, the first being his spilling of water on a slide, causing an image to be consumed by red, and, in some deeply sinister logic, causing his daughter to drown? It’s a horrible implication, and it’s the real meat of Du Maurier’s best work, not unrelated to Melanie Daniel’s mildly sensational arrival setting off a small neurotic apocalypse in ‘The Birds.’
Roeg made several superb, obsessive, haunting movies in the 70s and early 80s, and the title of one of them, Bad Timing (80), could easily have worked for Don’t Look Now. Fate may or may not be an active agent in this movie—against all odds, it’s left deliberately ambiguous—but so many events possess their own inherit disaster. Inevitability hides in every scene, though it only reveals itself to us in that final killer flashback montage. The ubiquitous water and other reflective surfaces splash and offer clues along the way. The truly horrible ending shocked me more upon my second viewing than it did on the first. I somehow forgot what was coming, or, like John, maybe I was just in denial. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to reconsider your relationship to your instincts.