Horror Month: Carnival of Souls

In honor, with the rest of the nation, of Horror Month, I decided to write movie reviews. The idea came to me yesterday, thanks to the Criterion Channel—one of my handful of more-than-adequate streaming sites. On a regular basis they air double features, and yesterday I happened upon Carnival of Souls and Yella.

Yella is a remake of Carnival of Souls. The Criterion editors described Yella as a “loose-remake of Herk Harvey’s legendary surrealistic nightmare”. While I’d heard of the film, I’d never seen it. I had only a vague notion of what it was about, and I had never heard of Yella.

Intriguing, this.

So, for the morbid, acceptably creepy autumnal month of October, I decided to issue a movie review of horror-slash-SF-slash-fantastical remakes—two for the price of one—and only remakes that in my mind are vaguely successful, and maybe even better than the original—although this is not always the case.

Christian Petzold’s 2007 German-language film opens with lovely Yella alone on a train. His direction relies on long pauses and glimpses of bleak German prospects: empty fields, sparsely populated villages and towns. Having been primed by Criterion Channels’ description, I immediately felt tense. I love the dour solemnity of German cinema. In every film, characters expect nothing but disappointment. It’s as if they are genetically unable to smile. Yella has a new job, and is coming home to tell her father. Her danger is heightened when a young man who knows her, wants to talk, but Yella makes it clear she doesn’t want to talk to him. Stalker, I think and my worry hikes up a notch.

Turns out Stalker is her ex. Clearly there is a nasty history here.

The direction takes us in a leisurely manner to the first tragic event. We know it’s going to happen. We are shouting—Get out of there!. But Yella survives. Yella escapes. Yella makes it back to the city in time for her first day of work.

Inexplicable things begin to happen—sudden deafness, principle characters who ignore her, then suddenly pay attention. Yella wears the same red blouse, black skirt and black heels every day. No one seems to notice.

Stalker-ex finds her, of course. She stumbles from failure to success and back again. Visions haunt her. All this time she is quiet and determined.

Without having ever seen the film’s predecessor, I know what is happening. I know how it will end, although I hope for hopeful variation. But this is horror, and this is Germany, and there will be nothing but tragedy and death.

Scads of tomatoes. Five to Ten stars, depending on your desired rating system. You have to be OK with long, quiet scenes full of nuance and menace. There is no soundtrack except the woodland birds and German trains.

1962’s Carnival of Souls was filmed largely in Utah, at the then abandoned Saltair Pavilion amusement park cum spa on Salt Lake. Mary Henry, a professional organist, leaves home after surviving a tragic mishap and comes to a small town in Utah, taking a job as the church organist. Pipe organ music comprises the sound track, accompanying Mary as she moves into a share-room house, tries unsuccessfully to escape the unwanted attention of her lustful neighbor, and finds herself strangely attracted to the hulking ruin of the Pavilion on the lake shore.

Mary struggles with her sense of independence, defending her behavior as a strong loner who needs no one. Deafness happens with prolonged periods where everyone in the town ignores her. An ominous man is following her, eyes bruised and skin like ivory.

Mary’s organ-playing takes a macabre turn, and she is fired from her church job. Of course, we know that she will go time and time again to the Pavilion, and panics to see ghostly dancers waltzing to organ music. She fights the inevitable and loses. The film ends with the swift, ironic reveal, which must have shocked the early ’60’s audience.

Cheesy, but cheesiness in 1960’s horror films reek of camp so you’ve got to love it. I can’t rate it with tomatoes or stars, but I recommend it, as it stands among the classics. Not one to miss.

Next week, The Thing.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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