Defining cult cinema is an exercise to which you could devote an inordinate amount of time, without attaining anything substantial or conclusive. The reason for this is plain enough: a cult film can be any type of movie that engenders a particularly zealous and devoted following. In this regard, cult doesn’t correspond to any particular genre or overriding aesthetic. The idea that a cult phenomenon comes from somewhere outside of the mainstream, or must experience an initial period of disparagement or obscurity, is no longer really a necessary prerequisite. Comic-book blockbusters like the Dark Knight are an example of cinema that possesses within its massive mainstream audience a smaller faction for whom the movie is a cult phenomenon. Similarly, television shows like Lost illustrate the degree to which smart popular entertainments can adroitly cater to both more casual and cultish audiences.
Outside of a strictly literal interpretation of the term, however, cult cinema has a specific ambience and aesthetic, albeit one which remains broad and difficult to define. In many respects, it is legitimately an outsider art-form, which venerates the wilfully individual and the grandiosely eccentric. Cult cinema flourished in genres that fell outside the pale of critical respectability, and derived much of its allure from the idea of discovering hidden gems and sheer oddities out at the fringes of culture. In so far as cult cinema is associated with kitsch, it is less concerned with a simple-minded so-bad-its-good aesthetic, and more with films which somehow manage to completely evade such normally firm qualitative distinctions.
Stemming from all these factors, the most salient characteristic of cult cinema is probably an inherent resistance to easy categorization. The best cult films blur the distinction between aspects of cinema which tend to be placed at the furthest remove from one another: between art and exploitation, and critically canonical notions of good taste and bad. This is a characteristic which is common to many great cult film-makers, including David Lynch, Dario Argento, and Seijun Suzuki; it is also to be found in spades in Carnival of Souls, a richly atmospheric and evocative B-movie described by Bruce Kawin as “an episode of the Twilight Zone directed by Ed Wood and Antonioni.”
Herk Harvey was born in
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As well being an engrossing Gothic or supernatural mystery, Carnival is a fairly intense study of alienation, psychological detachment, and madness. It begins very abruptly, with two groups of young people engaged in the perennial fifties activity of drag-racing. The cars collide on a bridge, and one of them hurtles into the river. The title sequence establishes immediately that Carnival possesses an artistic sensibility that belies its non-professional acting and lo-fi production values: the slanting credits are sharply placed over atmospheric close shots of the river’s banks and eddying waters. One of the girls from the car, Mary Henry, emerges later on the shore in a distracted state, unable to remember how she survived the crash. Henry is somewhat overplayed by Lee Strasburg graduate Candace Hiligoss, who never really registered anywhere else on the cinematic radar. Nevertheless, her physicality is compulsively watchable, and perfect for the role; her large, oval features remind many viewers of fellow ghoul victim Barbara (Judith O’Dea) in Romero’s later Night of the Living Dead, and others of Tipi Hedren in Hitchcock’s zombie of the diminutive, feathered variety classic The Birds.
From the outset, Mary’s coldness and detachment is emphasized: she is pictured playing the organ at a factory, dwarfed by its immense and baroque structure. Later the supervisor tells her that she plays intelligently, but without any real soul or feeling. This fundamental dislocation from life is the keynote for Mary’s character throughout the film, and it is left to the audience to decide whether this is as a result of the crash, or simply her disposition all along; whether, in other words, the plot is supernatural in orientation, or hallucinatory and psychological in essence. As Mary travels to
Clifford’s quite intelligent and compressed script also asserts that Mary is as estranged from the spiritual dimension of life as the physical. She regards her work in the church simply as a job, an attitude which seems to unsettle the simple-minded Mr. Linden. Mary’s chief preoccupation in the film is the same as that of the audience: to try to understand herself, and why she is so different. She is pursued by a sardonically grinning ghoul called simply the Man, who is very redolent of something from David Lynch’s feverish imagination. (The Man is played by Herc Harvey himself.) Having seen the Saltair Pavilion on her way to the city, she becomes convinced that it has some kind of profound significance to her condition. The audience, however, like the town doctor, is left to wonder how much of this is only in her imagination.
Though Carnival ultimately resolves itself with a supernatural explanation, in many respects