The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen (5 page)

BOOK: The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen
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“We didn't set out to make a classic. We just wanted to make a movie that would make a little money . . .”

— Cinematographer Maurice Prather

The success of
The Blair Witch Project
in 1999 took everyone by surprise. A no-budget, black-and-white horror film, it packed a punch with atmospherics and unexpected thrills. Almost 40 years earlier, another micro-budgeted movie,
Carnival of Souls
, breathed the same air, giving us a fear-inspiring story that relied on psychological terror rather than high-tech special effects.

Colorado-born producer/director Herk Harvey was born into a working-class family and christened with the unlikely name Harvey Harvey. Always fascinated with show business, he majored in theater at Kansas University, cutting his teeth acting and directing stage productions. In the late '50s he turned to film, working with the Centron Corporation of Lawrence, Kansas, a company specializing in educational and industrial films. Hired as an actor, he appeared in many short subjects before taking a job behind the camera as a director.

The idea for
Carnival of Souls
was born in 1961 during a road trip through Utah. Harvey had just finished shooting an industrial film in California, and while driving home to Kansas he passed Saltair, an abandoned amusement park located near the Great Salt Lake. “It was the weirdest place I'd ever seen,” he later said. Once a popular resort, the grand structure was now in ruins, but it lit up Harvey's imagination, and he sensed it would be a good location to shoot a film. Harvey had aspired to directing features, especially now that another industrial filmmaker, Robert Altman, had recently made the jump to the big screen with
The Delinquents
, shot in Kansas City.

Harvey discussed the idea of shooting a feature with John Clifford, a friend from Centron. Clifford was an author with a western novel to his credit. They brainstormed, and in two months Clifford had a completed script.

Clifford's script begins with a drag race between a carload of young women and some testosterone-charged guys. The race ends badly and the women crash, plunging into a deep river. Hours later, as the police drag the river for bodies in vain, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) appears, dazed but unhurt. She remembers nothing of the accident, and is viewed as a miracle woman, someone who defied death. She tries to lead a normal life, accepting a job as a church organist in Utah. As she pieces her life together, strange things start to happen. She loses touch with reality, able to see people who cannot see or hear her. A ghostly figure (played by Herk Harvey) plagues her, even though no one else will admit to seeing the phantom. What exactly is this hallucination?

The story is simple, if not completely original. Lucille Fletcher, wife of
composer Bernard Hermann, had written a script called
The Hitchhiker
, which was performed on the radio by the Mercury Theatre and starred Orson Welles. There are vague similarities between
The Hitchhiker
and Clifford's script. In Fletcher's story a motorist who had previously been in a car accident driving across the country repeatedly encounters the same hitchhiker after a car accident.

The connections to
The Hitchhiker
are clear (both Mary Henry and Fletcher's motorist see ghosts after surviving a trauma), although Clifford adds some elements that set it apart from Fletcher's radio play. This time the main character is a woman, who slips in and out of a supernatural state of non-being. Also, Clifford's Mary is a cold, distant character, a break from the stereotypical sympathetic horror movie heroine. The story may have familiar elements, but Clifford's handling of the material elevates a run-of-the-mill trifle into a nightmare of paranoid delusion. Its refusal to provide cut-and-dried answers leaves the viewer uneasy.

While Clifford was penning the screenplay, Harvey set out to raise the modest budget through private investors. He pieced together $17,000, a modest sum, even in the early '60s. With no money in the budget to pay actors, an amateur cast was assembled, and Harvey took a three-week leave of absence from Centron to shoot the film.

When it came to cutting corners on the set of
Carnival of Souls
, Harvey used some tricks he'd learned while shooting industrials. With no money for special effects, save for some wavy lines that appear between plains of existence, some ingenuity was required. In one scene a ghostly face appears on a car window. Today the effect could easily be accomplished with computer imagery, but in 1962 Harvey and cinematographer Maurice Prather came up with a much simpler solution. “We did it with a mirror,” says Prather.

Budgetary concerns precluded the use of a process screen, a technique commonly used in film to give the illusion of movement in car scenes. These shots would typically be shot in a studio with any landscape seen through the windows of the car projected onto the process screen. In
Carnival of Souls
the car scenes were actually shot on location inside moving vehicles, using a battery powered handheld Arriflex camera. The shots are very clean, and have since become the industry standard. The use of the Arriflex, an extremely mobile camera traditionally used in news photography, gave them the opportunity to concoct elaborate camera moves without the use of expensive dollies or cranes. The inventive camera work of Maurice Prather is one of the things that sets
Carnival of Souls
above other low-budget horror films of the same vintage.

Another effective scene was shot for only a few dollars. Central to the story is the car crash at the beginning of the film. It is important that the viewer see the crash to understand its devastating nature. The cars were arranged through a contra deal, but having them smash through a bridge was a different and potentially more expensive matter. “What do you think it cost us for a city like Lecompton, Kansas, to let us wreck their bridge?” asked Prather, “Thirty-eight dollars. They said, ‘Yeah, you can do that as long as you replace the rails you knock out.' It was nothing to replace the rails.”

Carnival of Souls
is a potent thriller, and like
The Blair Witch Project
rises above its humble beginnings to deliver some truly frightening moments. I particularly like the use of sound in a pair of scenes where Mary finds herself shut off from reality, unable to make herself known to those around her. Harvey heightens the tension of those passages by eliminating all sound except the clicking of Mary's heels. The eerie silence conveys Mary's alienation far more effectively than any musical score could.

The crisp black-and-white
Carnival of Souls
doesn't look or feel like a modern horror film and contains moments of wooden acting and stiff dialogue, but it has undoubtedly influenced a generation of filmmakers. Its steely-eyed look at the horror that can lie just under the surface certainly influenced David Lynch, while other horrormeisters like John Carpenter and George Romero have acknowledged its importance.

Herk Harvey never made another feature (he became a teacher at Kansas University), but he did live long enough to see his film become a cult classic. He died in 1996, eight years after it was theatrically rereleased to great critical fanfare.


“Paul loaded the camera. Andy pointed it and Gerard started the tape recorder — there were always endless amounts of waiting. Of course there were endless amounts of drugs too, which sort of made up for it.”

— Mary Woronov, star of Chelsea Girls

Any wine expert can tell you that certain bottles, when stored properly, improve with time. Think of
Chelsea Girls
as a nicely aged bottle of Meursault Sancerre 1967 — smoky, but displaying a tremendous presence; rich and boldly flavored. Viewed with a mix of curiosity and bewilderment at its initial screenings,
Chelsea Girls
has become Andy Warhol's best-known film and a true underground classic.

Pop artist Andy Warhol liked to hang out at the El Quixote restaurant, located downstairs from the fabled Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street in New York. He would meet his entourage (most of whom were staying at the hotel) for a cheap dinner washed down with jugs of sangria and would discuss the events of the day. During one of these meals Warhol says he “got the idea to unify all the pieces of these people's lives by stringing them together as if they lived in different rooms of the same hotel.”

Warhol had been tinkering with films since the early '60s. His pieces were primitive point-and-shoot exercises featuring ad-libbed dialogue and naturalistic performances. His films were studies of people doing mundane things — one film,
, showed Robert Indiana eating a mushroom for 33 minutes; another,
, was a half-hour movie of one man ritualistically cutting another man's hair. His idea for
Chelsea Girls
was to be his most ambitious film to date.

Between June and September 1966 Warhol shot 15 one- and two-reel films at various locations around New York City, including the Chelsea Hotel and his Factory studio. The process was the same each time. Each scene was shot in one take until the 35-minute film load had run out. Warhol's thesis was simple: point the camera at exciting people, let it run, and something interesting was likely to happen. “This way I can catch people being themselves instead of setting up a scene and shooting it and letting people act out parts that were written,” he said. “Because it's better to act naturally than act like somebody else.” The short films had no plots or scripts, save for some rough outlines that were discarded early in the shooting process.

Warhol's direction of the scenes was minimal. Eric Emerson, credited as The Boy in the Kitchen, remembers Warhol simply instructed him to tell the story of his life, and “somewhere along the line to take off all my clothes.” While Warhol didn't provide much guidance on the set, he did have other methods to draw incendiary performances from his actors. All the performers knew one another and were part of the scene that Warhol had created in his Factory art studio. The actors were using drugs, and all vying for Warhol's approval. He used this scenario to create tension among his “superstars” by spreading gossip and unkind remarks that the actors were allegedly making about one another. He encouraged them to express their feelings about one another in their scenes. This methodology was disagreeable and sometimes cruel, but it made for compelling viewing. Bob “Ondine” Olivio, who played The Pope of Greenwich Village in the film, called this manner of working unpleasant, but added with a bit of unintentional hyperbole, “he pulled out of these people, including myself, some of the best performances
on screen.”

Warhol did capture some unforgettable images. Transvestite Mario Montez cut his scene short after being reduced to tears by the insults of two boys sitting on a bed. The taunts and the tears are real, and the scene is harrowing.

In another scene real life and infighting take over. Before filming began, Susan “International Velvet” Bottomly told Warhol she was expecting a call from a modeling agency. He told her that would not be a problem, and to use the call in the scene. When the phone rings a fight ensues between Velvet and Mary “Mary Might” Woronov when Mary won't let Velvet answer it. “That's my call,” says Velvet. “You don't have a call,” Mary replies, “You have a fat ass.” It may seem trite now in light of television's reality shows, but the realism drips off the screen, and the viewer is left wondering if what they are seeing is real or contrived. That feeling is enhanced when one of the actors, obviously growing frustrated with Warhol's process, looks into the camera and asks, “When is that fucking thing going to stop?”

Warhol pieced together
Chelsea Girls
after reviewing the reels at the end of September 1967. A close examination of the 15 half-hour scenes revealed an unintentional, rough story line. Warhol realized that he could piece all these loose bits of footage together into one film. The problem was he was unable to edit the footage because he had shot it all on newsreel cameras that recorded the sound directly onto the film. This technique prevented separation of sound and picture, so to keep the sound in sync he would have to run the 35-minute segments uncut. To prevent a prohibitive seven-hour running time, Warhol ingeniously used a split-screen presentation, with sound only on one side at a time, to cut the running time down to three-and-a-half hours. Warhol created a standard order for the reels, though by juggling the order of the scenes and remixing the sound it is possible to create a different movie each time it is screened. In 2000, director Mike Figgis used a similar approach in his film
, which was shot on digital video and presented on a quadruple-split screen. Figgis would personally host screenings, remixing the sound based on the reactions of the audience.

Chelsea Girls
isn't perfect, but at three-and-a-half hours it has enough compelling moments to make it worth watching. For example, Ondine's attack on the Roman Catholic Church, climaxing with the line, “Approach the crucifix, lift his loincloth, and go about your business!” is searing stuff, and is still shocking today, decades after it was first released. What I find most fascinating about the film is the way it blurs the line between reality and artifice. Warhol orchestrated a sordid look at the soft underbelly of his life in New York, and it is hard to tell what is real and what is performance art, although the drug use and infighting seem authentic.

Warhol was not a skilled filmmaker. He didn't concern himself with properly recording the sound. The camera zooms wildly, constantly refocusing and jiggling. This looks and sounds like an underground movie, but there is a punk rock DIY energy about the film that propels the action.

In 1967
Chelsea Girls
was met with mixed critical reaction, and generated hundreds of column inches in the newspapers. Warhol was philosophical about fault-finding attacks from the establishment. “Until then the general attitude toward what we did was that it was
or a
or just plain
,” he said. “But after
Chelsea Girls
, words like
started being applied to us regularly.”

BOOK: The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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