FEATURING: Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin
PLOT: The granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) performs illicit neurological experiments on patients in her asylum, focusing especially on a nymphomaniac and a shock-therapy addicted cannibal.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: This is a good time to explain that the category “Borderline Weird” does not refer solely to a movie’s inherent strangeness, but to whether it’s both weird and effective enough to rank among the most recommended weird movies ever made. No doubt about it, Dr. Caligari is about as weird as they come, and would make a list of “weirdest movies regardless of quality” on first pass. The problem is that this movie is held back by amateurism in the production (especially the acting) and a lack of focus in the story. I wouldn’t feel ashamed elevating it onto the official List of 366 films, but I wouldn’t want it to take the place of a more serious and professionally produced film, either, so Dr.Caligari will be locked up in the Borderline Weird asylum until I figure out what to do with this curious case.
COMMENTS: The origin and history of Dr. Caligari is almost as strange as the film itself. Director Stephen Sayadian is better known as Rinse Dream, the creator of arty avant-garde hardcore porn films with ambitions of crossing over into the mainstream. His Café Flesh (1982), the story of a post-apoclayptic future where most of the population consists of “sex negatives” forced to obtain erotic fulfillment vicariously by watching “sex positives” perform, was generally well-reviewed and very nearly the crossover hit Sayadian craved. It and was released in theaters in an R-rated version for those with tender sensibilities. Seven years later, the director again attempted to return to the mainstream with this, his only work aimed directly at an audience not wearing raincoats and sunglasses. Intended as a midnight movie, Dr. Caligari had some limited success in LA theaters, and then gained a small but devoted following when released on video.
“We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau.”–variously attributed to screenwriter John Clifford or director Herk Harvey
DIRECTED BY: Herk Harvey
FEATURING: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger
PLOT: Mary Henry, a church organist, is the lone survivor of an accident when the car she’s riding in plunges over the side of an old wooden bridge. Looking to start over, she takes a job as an organist at a new church in a town where she knows no one. She finds herself haunted by the sight of a pale grinning man who appears to her when she is alone, and fascinated by an old abandoned carnival pavilion visible from the window of her boarding house that she senses hold a mysterious significance.
Carnival of Souls was made in three weeks for less than $100,000 (figures on the budget vary, but some place it as low as $33,000). The film was a flop on its initial release, but gained a cult following through late night television showings. The film was restored and re-released in 1989 to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Director Herk Harvey, screenwriter John Clifford and composer Gene Moore worked together at Centron Corporation, an industrial film company, creating short safety documentaries such as Shake Hands with Danger and high-school propaganda/hygiene films such as What About Juvenile Delinquency? None were ever involved with a feature film again.
Mesmerizing star Candace Hilligoss acted in only one other feature film, 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse, before retiring to raise a family.
The movie has been very influential on other films, particularly low-budget horror films. Director George Romero has said that the ghostly figures in Carnival of Souls inspired the look and feel of the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead (1968). Other writers see a Carnival of Souls influence on films such as Eraserhead (in regards to its ability to evoke the nightmarish quality of everyday objects), Repulsion (disintegration of the mind of a sexually repressed woman), and even Apocalypse Now (the shot of Martin Sheen rising from the water mimics a similar scene involving The Man–thanks to Matthew Dessem of “The Criterion Collection” for the catch).
Carnival of Souls was “remade” in 1998, although the plot (about a clown killer and rapist) shared nothing with the original except the name and the final twist. Wes Craven produced. The remake went direct to DVD and was savaged by critics and audiences alike.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else, but the titular carnival? Ghostly figures waltz to an eerie, deranged organ score on what appears to be an old merry-go-round at the abandoned amusement park. The tableau recurs twice in the film: once clearly in a dream, and once near the end as a scene that may also be a dream, but may be another state of being entirely.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Carnival of Souls is set in the ordinary, everyday world, but as seen through the eyes of an alienated, frightened woman. The world the film depicts is familiar, but made maddeningly strange, and its the subtle, grubby touches rather than ghostly apparitions that allow this creepy low-budget wonder to seep deep under your skin.
8 minute clip from Carnival of Souls (with annotations supplied by a youtube user)