Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mary Henry, Meet Betty Draper: Happy Halloween

I was trying to get into the Halloween spirit, thinking about all things creepy and scary, when from an obscure corner of my memory burst an image of ghouls rising out of the water and dancing in a pavilion. Carnival of Souls!!!

The 1962 film played on the 4:30 Movie in New York in the seventies.

(The 4:30 Movie had the BEST little credit sequence and music ever.)

My brother and I watched it several times over a few years. It was a ghoulish perennial, and therefore it has an emotional dimension for me, from my rollerskating years.

I didn’t watch again until the other night, when a bout of insomnia sent me to the net looking for something to occupy my fevered brain at 3:00 in the morning. I found Carnival online, and I was so frightened it shocked me into sleep.

From my 10 year old’s memory 2 shots stand out: the dancing in the dark, and a scene where Mary, our star, goes to a mechanic for car trouble as she’s trying to flee. She asks him if she can stay in the car as he puts it up on the jacks, and he says it’s okay. WHAT IS SHE NUTS?

Well, she’s actually something else. (More about that in the spoiler section,) And of course the creepy guy she’s trying to flee shows up in her rear view mirror.

It’s 1962 and Betty Draper Is Living on the East Coast

What struck me in the rewatch was the detached independence of Mary Henry. In a nutshell, Mary survives a car accident at the start of the film, walking out of a river where a car she’s in with 2 other women careened off a bridge. She takes up a job at a church as the organist. Yes, Mary is a career woman, a professional organist happy to have full-time gig.

Also the entreaty from the music director at the first church that music needs more than just correct notes, that she has to put some soul into her playing.

She reports for work at a church near Salt Lake, and is mystically drawn to the Saltair Pavilion. She visits it with the parish priest, but he won’t go past the no-trespassing sign. He does comment earlier that "now we have an organist who can lead our souls." Not the usual kind of detail in horror movies, but then there is that title . . .

Mary later says to her creepy boardinghouse neighbor that she wants to see the place, and she’ll go herself, which she does.

Mary is a cool Hitchcock blonde with a detached, cold demeanor. OMG, just like Mad Men's beloved Betty Draper, particularly in season 2, where she shows almost no affection for her children, and a general defensive numbness toward her cheating Don.

Mary and Betty could be sisters, or at least cousins. It made me wonder if Matt Weiner, who is from Baltimore, also saw Carnival on the afternoon movie in the seventies, and subconsciously modeled Betty on Mary? Carnival is erotic in many ways, from the drag racing at the beginning to Mary's bare feet dancing on the pedals of the organ; it would make quite an impression on a precocious little boy.

Mary has to deal with a gaggle of common variety ghouls, while Betty has to deal with something much more horrifying, the worst kind of ghoul: a charming, monstrously selfish man who can't be faithful and saps the life out of those around him.

I See Dead People


Carnival isn’t given enough credit for its twist, which reached maximum cultural penetration decades later in The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan said that an episode of Nickelodeon was the inspiration for his film, but Carnival predates that.

At the end of Carnival the police find the car that went over the bridge, and raise it out of the water. Inside we see Mary. She’s been dead, and her soul was caught between earth and the afterlife. Sometimes people could see her, and sometimes they couldn’t. The tension of the film comes as the dead go after her to reclaim her to their world.

As I kid, I thought this was only fair, and not so terrible for her. The ghouls got to dance every night; that’s more than many living people get to enjoy.


dorki said...

That sounds fiendishly wonderful! Must find a copy of that.
It takes a wonderfully strange mind to create such stories. This brings to mind the 1981 movie "Ghost Story". Cool one that.

M.A.Peel said...

I love the 1981 Ghost Story! There is a Criterion edition of Carnvial that is excellently produced, like all their thingsl