Tag Archives: Low budget

59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

“There’s a rare kind of perfection in The Beast of Yucca Flats — the perverse perfection of a piece wherein everything is as false and farcically far-out as can be imagined.”–Tom Weaver, in his introduction to his Astounding B Monster interview with Tony Cardoza

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Coleman Francis

FEATURING: Tor Johnson

PLOT: Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, defects to the United States, carrying with him a briefcase full of Soviet state secrets about the moon. Fleeing KGB assassins, he runs onto a nuclear testing range just as an atom bomb explodes. The blast of radiation turns him into an unthinking Beast who strangles vacationers who wander into the Yucca Flats region.

Still from The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Beast of Yucca Flats can always be found somewhere on the IMDB’s “Bottom 100” list (at the time the review was composed, it occupied slot #21).
  • All three of the films Coleman Francis directed were spoofed on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“.
  • Tor Johnson was a retired Swedish wrestler who appeared in several Ed Wood, Jr. movies. Despite the fact that none of the movies he appeared in were hits, his bestial face became so iconic that it was immortalized as a children’s Halloween mask.
  • All sound was added in post-production. Voice-overs occur when the characters are at a distance or when their faces are obscured so that the voice actors won’t have to match the characters lips. Some have speculated that the soundtrack was somehow lost and the narration added later, but shooting without synchronized sound was a not-unheard-of low-budget practice at the time (see The Creeping Terror, Monster A-Go-Go and the early filmography of ). Internal and external evidence both suggest that the film was deliberately shot silent.
  • Director Coleman Francis is the narrator and appears as a gas station owner.
  • Per actor/producer Tony Cardoza, the rabbit that appears in the final scene was a wild animal that wandered onto the set during filming. It appears that the feral bunny is rummaging through Tor’s shirt pocket looking for food, however.
  • Cardoza, a close friend of Francis, suggests that the actor/director may have committed suicide in 1973 by placing a plastic bag over his head and inhaling the fumes from his station wagon through a tube, although arteriosclerosis was listed as the official cause of death.
  • The film opens with a topless scene that lasts for only a few seconds; it’s frequently clipped off prints of the film.
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats is believed to be in the public domain and can be legally viewed and downloaded at The Internet Archive, among other sources.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tor Johnson, in all his manifestations, whether noted scientist or irradiated Beast; but especially when he cuddles and kisses a cute bunny as he lies dying.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Coleman Francis made three movies in his lifetime, all of which were set in a reality known only to Coleman Francis. His other two films (The Skydivers and Night Train to Mundo Fine [AKA Red Zone Cuba]) were grim and incoherent stories of despairing men and women in desolate desert towns who drank coffee, flew light aircraft, and killed off odd-looking extras without finding any satisfaction in the act. Though his entire oeuvre was more than a bit bent by his joyless outlook on life, his natural affinity for the grotesque, and his utter lack of attention to filmic detail, this Luddite tale of an obese scientist turned into a ravening atomic Beast survives as his weirdest anti-achievement.


Trailer for The Beast of Yucca Flats with commentary from director Joe Dante (Trailers from Hell)

COMMENTS:  Touch a button on the DVD player. Things happen onscreen. A movie Continue reading 59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: LIQUID SKY (1982)

DIRECTED BY: Slava Tsukerman

FEATURING: Anne Carlisle, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas, Otto von Wernherr, Bob Brady

PLOT: Tiny aliens land their flying saucer on the roof of a New York City penthouse and begin sucking the brains out of sex-addicted New Wave beatniks.

Still from Liquid Sky (1982)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Tsukerman’s filming style is free-form and unconventional. Liquid Sky‘s visual footprint is every bit as avant-garde as its story about drug addicted extraterrestrials is bizarre.

COMMENTS: Aliens come to Earth in search of a heroin rush. It seems the little green, er, ah, terrestrially challenged ones don’t have the requisite opposing thumbs needed for handling a set of works, so they enjoy their smack the next best way: by telekinetically extracting the gray-matter of heroin addicts whose brains are flooded with opiates. Wonderful though it may be, heroin turns out to be only a gateway drug for the saucer-jockeys. While some human poppy-heads may find death to be the ultimate narcotic, the aliens soon discover that the endorphin rush in a juicy human brain during orgasm is the ultimate high, and they reset their priorities accordingly.

Now the gnarly little starmen seek out fornicators and harvest their orgasms for the best buzz. Still guided by the scent of smack, the space-meisters dock their star-buggy on the roof of a penthouse shared by a drug dealer and her lesbian fashion model lover. Their apartment contains a large amount of heroin, but better yet, is the locus of a lot of degenerate sex.

When the two gal pals aren’t waxing philosophic during their performance art exhibitions and dance routines at a local New Wave club, they are attracting a steady stream of addicted customers, androgynous jet trash, and depraved sex fiends back to their pad. The astral hop heads make the most of the situation and suck hapless guests dry when they sexually relieve themselves. Of course this kills each guest, but no matter. A few dead bodies are an almost normalizing factor at these two girls’ crazy, drug-addled, day-glo, non-stop New Wave penthouse party.

A Berlin scientist who has been studying the aliens makes the scene and tries to rescue the girls before the little neuron nibblers absorb their whacked-out noggins as well. The situation becomes a bit sticky when he discovers that the fashion model has plans of her own for the moonmen junkies.

Liquid Sky is a terribly dated, low budget film that is imaginatively colorful and oh so avant-garde. While it looks pretty campy now, 1980’s hipsters affirm that at the time of its release, Liquid Sky was considered to be the coolest thing by New Wave standards since “smart drinks” and those wraparound mirrored “spectrums” Devo used to wear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see… The film redefines weirdness and randomness as it jumps back and forth between seemingly unimportant scenes in clubs where our characters, like deer stuck in headlights, dance away and fight off the advances of others.”–Ed Gonzalez, Apollo Movie Guide (DVD)

CAPSULE: HEADS OF CONTROL: THE GORUL BAHEU BRAIN EXPEDITION (2006)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Pat Tremblay

FEATURING: Neil Napier, and amateurs who answered a newspaper ad

PLOT: Pharmaceutical molecules visualized as alien beings travel inside the mind of a

Still from Heads of Control (2006)

man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder and collect various “personalities,” who are examined as they perform monologues in front of surreal computer generated backgrounds.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not released.  But even if it were released, it’s too uneven to qualify for a list of the 366 Best Weird Movies, although it would definitely have a shot at a list of the weirdest movies ever made regardless of quality.

COMMENTS: Before beginning the description of Heads of Control, I must explain why it earns a “beware” rating.  Normally, I reserve the “beware” badge for movies that are badly done, or even, in some cases, movies that are morally bad.  Heads of Control, however, meets neither of those criteria; although it’s cheap and uneven, it is quite competently mounted and the experimental impulse behind it is admirable.  Here, the rating is given due to the simple fact that this movie is so far out, so much like a performance art piece, that will only appeal to a very small slice of the most dedicated avant-gardists, or to those looking for the ultimate micro-budget drug trip film.  This experiment requires work on the viewers part to watch, and anyone looking for something remotely resembling a normal narrative movie is going to be hugely disappointed.

With that intriguing warning out of the way, just what is Heads of Control?  It begins with the protagonist, Max, being attacked by river zombies; it quickly appears that this is a hallucination, as we see Max in a mental institution being shot up with drugs.  Soon, we are inside Max’s diseased brain, watching a pair of hooded creatures.  The subordinate journeys into the patient’s psychedelically appointed neurons to fetch various two-dimensional rectangles from his tangled neural networks, which the superior creature places into a floating computer monitor.  The pair then watch the results, which consist

Continue reading CAPSULE: HEADS OF CONTROL: THE GORUL BAHEU BRAIN EXPEDITION (2006)

CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Henenlotter

FEATURING: Kevin van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner

PLOT: Duane checks into a derelict Times Square hotel carrying a wicker basket under his arm; inside is something about 1/4 the size of a person, that eats about 4 times the hamburgers a person would.

Still from Basket Case (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Most people will go through their entire lives and never see anything as weird as the micro-budgeted cult shocker Basket Case.  A fine little offbeat exploitation shocker, the flick makes a late-in-the-game play for true weirdness with a strange dream sequence that sees Duane running naked through the streets of New York as a prelude to the film’s most shocking development.  To us, however, Basket Case shakes out as nothing more (or less) than a fine example of a unique, campy monster flick with only marginally weird elements.  That’s just how selective we are with our weirdness.

COMMENTS:  One of the secrets to Basket Case‘s success is that it positively oozes indecency and vice, but isn’t mean-spirited or sadistic.  Director Frank Henenlotter nails the aesthetic of sleaze, and for the most part keeps on the right side of the fine line between trash and crass, only crossing over briefly once or twice so that we know where the border is.  You emerge from a screening titillated and pleasantly shocked, but not feeling like you have to take a bath or go to confession.  The setting—the 42nd street red light district as it existed in Times Square in the early 1980s—creates an immediate atmosphere of moral and social decay.  Since renovated and Disneyfied, back then the neon-lit 42nd street was an avenue where you could walk past peep shows and marquees advertising “3 Kung Fu hits!” while being propositioned for weed, heroin and/or whores by strangers.  The scenes Henenlotter shot Continue reading CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: FROWNLAND (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ronald Bronstein

FEATURING: Dore Mann, David Sandholm, Paul Grimstad

PLOT: A pathetic loser named Keith lives a putrid existence in his sigh-

Still from Frownland (2007)

inducing apartment. He is horribly flawed in every way: vacuous, temperamental, and repulsively stupid. He lives with a roommate he wants to rid himself of, he tries to romance women to no avail, and his attempts to better himself in any way only exacerbate his terminal lameness.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  The titanic sadness at the center of Frownland is certainly profound enough to be considered weird.  It calls to a part of us that we all carry within: that anti-social, misfit side who feels that, truly, in our heart of hearts, we are ugly and alone.  Only, in Keith, we find that part magnified, personified to a hideous degree.  There is something quietly disturbing about a man struggling with so many problems adapting to society, trying to overcome the shame he feels in himself and his deplorable condition.  But to say that it is weird based on that facet alone is to ignore the unflinching blandness surrounding Keith and the lack of any character whatsoever in the world Frownland creates.

COMMENTS: Cited by many media outlets as a comedy, Frownland is a crushing personal statement of loneliness and isolation in a city of millions.  If this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of the absurdity to which modern life is betrothed.

From the very first moment, Ronald Bronstein fashions an air of shame and anxiety around the central character, Keith, that is hard to shake.  Keith is a dreg of humanity, a product of a lack of any esteem or dignity, and while it doesn’t excuse his behavior at times, it is worth noting that he isn’t exactly like the hideous beast he watches on a televised horror movie in an early scene.  But everything about him is unappealing, from his appearance to his treatment of his semi-friends to the way he lies just to try to relate to other human beings.  He is not even an anti-hero: he’s an anti-anything, a character that admittedly took a lot of guts to commit to film, and one that will live in infamy in the indie circuit for years to come.

Bronstein has a very dark, organic vision that threatens to swallow the viewer in a miasma of dilapidated retro culture.  It has the heart of an angst-ridden 70s independent feature, the set pieces of an 80s European film, the youth-centric mindset of a low-budget 90s film, but for all we know it is set in 2007.  Nothing is given as far as details, and we can only guess while the unsettling score drifts in and out of the background.  It is an effort that many will compare to John Cassavetes, with its heavy mood and deeply troubled characters, but in the rhythms and pacing of the hypnotic dialog Bronstein traces out, I think there is a real visionary here who stands out from his peers.

Frownland is a work of art that tests us on a very cerebral level, and I for one am glad to have seen it.  I think it’s fair to keep this on the borderline for now, but with enough support behind it, it may very well earn its own spot on the List.  For a comedy in which I never laughed once, this might just be the best comedy I’ve seen all year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…either a primal scream issued from a potentially dangerous mind, a wildly original work of outsider art, a doctoral thesis on how not to make friends and influence people, or all (or none) of the above. Only this much is certain: It’s been a while since something this gonzo turned up at a theater near you.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

This movie was suggested for review by reader “Rob”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

CAPSULE: LOREN CASS (2006)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Chris Fuller

FEATURING: Kayla Tabish, Travis Maynard, Chris Fuller (as Lewis Brogan), Jacob Reynolds

PLOT:  Bad poetry interrupts episodes in the lives of three teens or twenty-somethings at about the time of the 1997 St. Petersburg, Florida race riots.

Still from Loren Cass (2006)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only fitfully weird, but consistently dull and pretentious. Life on this planet is full of hardships and disappointments; no one should voluntarily compound their woes by watching Loren Cass.

COMMENTS:  A voice says “after the 1997…”   A solo trumpet launches a doomed search for a melody.  A boy wakes up on the floor of a mechanic’s garage.  Another boy, with a shaved head, piercings and tattoos, presumably a skinhead, wakes up on a couch and goes outside to lie in the middle of the street.  A cute blonde girl wakes up next to a black male.  The boy from the garage picks up the skinhead.  The girl takes her own car.  The three drive to school.  The parking lot is full but the hallways inside are empty.  We get a nice look at the urinals.  Someone loads a gun.  We see the urinals from a different angle.  An older man takes a shot of whiskey.  The two boys are next to last to leave the parking lot.  At a stoplight a black guy jumps out of a van and punches the punk kid with through an open window.  They have a fight.  The screen goes blank and a street poet tells us St. Petersburg is “a dirty dirty town by a dirty dirty sea.”  What’s going on here?  The cute blonde works at a diner where no one ever orders anything.  She has car trouble and takes it to the young mechanic.  He fixes it and they go to dinner together.  She shovels gray cubes of meat into her mouth.  He doesn’t eat.  They barely talk but look at each other a lot.  They are in love.  What’s going on here?  Other things happen.  They aren’t interesting, either.  Some kids drink beer and say the F-word a lot until the Man comes and hassles them.  The skinhead’s hobby is to ride the bus at night.  We look at his face.  He looks alienated. Snippets of bad beatnik poetry and drunken ramblings play on the soundtrack.  There is a punk concert.  The skinhead falls asleep on the bus and dreams he’s a victim of spontaneous human combustion.  Years ago an embattled politician committed suicide at a press conference.  The footage is in the public domain so anyone can insert it into their movie at random.  The mechanic and the cute girl have sex.  The skinhead scratches “Loren Cass” onto his arm with a hypodermic needle he finds in a dumpster.  He swallows a handful of pills in a desperate attempt to get out of the movie.  He vomits them up.  The movie won’t let him out that easily.  He wakes up the next morning and looks into the camera.  He looks disaffected.  The trumpet player still hasn’t found a melody.  The credits roll.  What just went on here?  The Variety critic stayed awake and alert long enough to write that he had just seen “a starkly radical film debut of uncommon power and artistic principle.”  Seriously, what is going on here?

The events are set around the times of the St. Petersburg race riots, which we know because we see newsreel footage of the aftermath and hear audio clips of a rabble-rousing black preacher.  The movie supplies no context to suggest whether these incidents take place before, after, or during the riots.  But the subtext makes the film political and important.  Use of the tragically real footage of Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer blowing his brains out on camera either says something insightful about fiscal corruption in the Keystone state in the 1980s, or is completely indefensible.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ingeniously experimental in form… The tone — spaced-out, adrift, grubby yet ecstatic — is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s experimental youth movies and Harmony Korine’s ‘Gummo,’ while the formal precision brings to mind Robert Bresson’s clipped, oblique allegories.”–Nathan Lee, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SCARS OF YOUTH (2008)

DIRECTED BY: John R. Hand

FEATURING: Jeremy Hosbein, Amanda Edington

PLOT: A survivor of the apocalypse is conflicted about his mother, who is addicted to a

Still from Scars of Youth (2008)

black fluid that keeps her eternally young but causes disorientation and scarring.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scars of Youth is a beautifully lensed film, filled with dreamlike images and montages. Although not impenetrable, the tale comes across mysterious and weird, thanks to the oblique, overwhelmingly visual storytelling. Unfortunately, all this beauty pads a thin and unengaging storyline.

COMMENTSScars of Youth is easy to critique.  It’s visually and sonically entrancing, on its own terms and even more so when you consider the low budget and lack of any special effects.  On the other hand, the story is slow, yet hard to follow, and what we do discern of the tale doesn’t add up to very much.  The audio in some of the necessary background exposition is deliberately distorted in an attempt to create atmosphere that creates frustration instead.  The performances are substandard throughout; the amateur actors can’t convey complex emotions, and the third main character—a sort of adventurer who smuggles immortality fluid past the checkpoints of an unseen civilization to our hero—sports an unnatural laugh that is particularly off-putting.  Almost every scene is drawn out for far too long, with actors staring off into space with melancholy expressions or wandering around state parks, disconsolately staring at wire fences.  These elements of pure mood can’t take the place of dialogue or action.  There is full-frontal nudity to liven things up, but the mother-son incest subtext, intended to provoke, is laid on far too thickly, with sexual symbolism slathered on with so little subtlety that it becomes embarrassing.  On the plus side, the eerie ambient music is a highlight, and the photography is especially beautiful and far more professional than the narrative aspects of the film.  There are beautiful shots of rippling ponds, closeups of bustling ant colonies, sun-dappled forests, and a consistent, painterly eye for color and composition.  Blue filters are used on the interiors in the protagonist’s lonely room, which turn what would otherwise look like a garage with white sheets hung about for walls into something reasonably mystical.  The black and white dream and flashback scenes are crisp and lovely; one brilliantly conceived sequence is grainy and filled with afterimages, as well as some of the film’s loveliest symbolism.  These short, impressionistic moments are where Scars shines; they could fit comfortably as mood pieces inside a major production with more of a story to tell.  They just can’t carry an entire film.

Hand’s earlier film, Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, was a collage-like creation inspired by the visual styles of cheap and crazy 1970s drive-in horror movies. The look, sound and pace of Scars of Youth is, instead, a tribute to Tarkovsky‘s Stalker.  Hand captures the general feel of the Russian minimalist master, but whereas the murky grindhouse visuals of Nightmare made the lack of locations, story and acting talent almost appropriate, the ultra-clean, professionally shot look of Scars of Youth highlights these deficiencies.  Both films contain a few gorgeous images which, if they could be judged in isolation, would earn five star ratings; but, in both films we also get the feeling that we’re watching the work of a brilliant cinematographer and sensualist who has yet to find a meaningful story to tell.  If Hand’s storytelling abilities ever catch up to the level of his technical skills, he’ll become the Stanley Kubrick of homemade videos.

A signed “limited edition” of Scars of Youth can be ordered directly from JRH films for $15.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another successful experimental tweaking of a familiar genre for Hand.”–Mike Everleth, BadLit.com

CAPSULE: FRANKENSTEINS BLOODY NIGHTMARE (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: John R. Hand, Amy Olivastro

PLOT: A scientist—or perhaps his monster, it’s never quite clear—kills women to harvest their body parts so the doctor can resurrect his dead love.

Still from Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Missing apostrophe aside, there’s lots to admire about Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, though not as much to love. Director Hand shows a remarkable technical ability to create unique visual and auditory environments inspired by the 1970s trash movies of , , and , but with their cheap, desperate Super-8 stylistics exaggerated to surreal levels. The problem is that, for all its technical ingenuity, the movie has no story to tell, which will cause the average viewer to lose interest quickly.

COMMENTS: Frankensteins flesh may be recycled out of various parts snatched from grindhouse graveyards, but its heart was taken straight from the arthouse. One man show John R. Hand (writer/director/editor/composer/star) obviously watched a lot of 1970s horror cheapies growing up, and (like us) he was clearly more impressed by the mysterious artificial ambiances created by grainy film stock and heavy use of theremins, oscillators and other weird sci-fi audio effects than he was by the nudity and gore those drive-in auteurs depended on to sell tickets. Nightmare strips away the exploitation elements from these flicks (bloody it ain’t), adopting only the bare outline of a mad scientist story. It then seizes the distressed visuals and shaky audio that remains, and amplifies these leftovers to psychedelic levels. Hand himself is too boyish looking to convey the soul of a tortured scientist, and his acting is no better than the rest of the amateurs in the film. Given the intent is to mimic an exploitation film, this might not detract too much from the atmosphere, had there just been enough story and action to keep the viewer engaged. Dialogue is sometimes muffled and inaudible, making a difficult-to-follow story nearly impossible. It’s a bizarre experience to feel lost inside a the plot of a movie where almost nothing is happening onscreen.

Stylistically, on the other hand, there’s always something going on. The opening mixes grainy home-video style footage with bright, solarized footage depicting a pitchfork assault; strange whines, moans, blips, and electronic drones assault our ears, building to a dissonant crescendo. The film changes style every five minutes or so, as we tour Hand’s portfolio of foggy lenses, overexposed film, desaturated colors, psychedelic color filters, thermal imaging, a  psycho-sexual dream sequence, all accompanied by a disquieting soundtrack of distorted Moog organs and overdubbed tape effects. The penultimate scene in the film contains an absolutely beautiful effect where the autumn landscape, then an actress’ face, magically and organically melt into abstract blobs of orange and gold and purple (the director’s commentary reveals the cheap and ingenious method by which it was achieved: household bleach on still photographs).

Overall, Nightmare is a worthy experiment that’s successful in short stretches, but could have used a lot more story. A few bare boobs and a pint or two of gooey stage blood, the key elements this film’s inspirations never would have left out, would also have livened things up.

I can see why would give Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare an honorable mention on his top 10 weird movies list. Depending as it does on discount techniques for creating striking moods, this is a movie that can almost serve as a textbook to Hand’s fellow micro-budget filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a wild cocktail of nightmarish sensibilities; its death nerve twitches to a disquieting mish-mash of strange images and even stranger sounds… The story is bootleg but Hand’s head-trippy dissolving of consciousness is something fierce, inviting repeat viewings with a joint in hand.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian [AKA Rinse Dream]

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.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

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.

Dr. Caligari never got a proper DVD release, however, and fell out of the public eye; most Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

“We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau.”–variously attributed to screenwriter John Clifford or director Herk Harvey

Must See

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
BACKGROUND:

  • 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 WEIRDCarnival 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)

COMMENTS: Carnival of Souls is a minor film miracle.  There was little reason to suspect Continue reading 16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)