Monday, October 25, 2004
In 1962, Herk Harvey unveiled his first and only feature film, "Carnival of Souls," a creepy drive-in classic that was filmed almost entirely in Lawrence, KS. In 2004, Rob Gillaspie and Kelly Nightengale got drunk and talked about it. This is their story...
R: How did you first hear about Carnival of Souls?
K: I had a good friend who was nearing death, he was getting really old and he was experiencing a lot of the things that happen in old age, including a bit of dementia and a lot of memory loss... He would refer frequently to a "carnival of souls."
R: Was it like Joyland?
K: It was crazier than Joyland, because it was like Joyland of the Dead. Anyway, he talked about a friend of his, they used to do a lot of coke together. He and his friend entered this carnival of souls together, and it just sounded like this bizarre zombie festival. I would ask him questions about it, believing that he was actually so close to dying that he was starting to experience being pulled by the other world. I'm an atheist and I don't necessarily believe in any kind of afterlife, but with him... he had such visual descriptions and so much passion about this UNDERWORLD that I thought he was really being pulled by Death. And he described entering this world, he described this black lacquered pool of water... and he described this empty-eyed woman, a woman who just moved through the world as though she were never in it.
'Carnival of Souls segment'
R: Like Jessica Simpson?
K: No, more like Cokie Roberts. He talked about how she played the organ, and he talked about this brooding organ music that was always there. He talked about these discombobulated notes that sounded like a church but also sounded like the Devil. When he talked about the church music and the Devil's music sounding a lot alike, when he talked about this lacquered pool of water and this maypole dance and this carnival... it sounded really strange. But then I rented the movie, because my boyfriend wanted to see it. I got it home and I watched it, and I realized that he was absolutely serious. He was telling the truth about his friend, Herk! Herk Harvey's name was in the credits, he directed and produced the entire movie. And everything he was describing was there. The movie was made in 1962, and this was maybe in 1995... and this was what he talked about all the time. He was very close to death, you know, he was dying... He was experiencing lots of hallucinations and memory loss, but THIS is what stayed in his mind, all of these images from the movie. It made it even more interesting, the fact that he helped make this movie and also that it was the one thing he wanted to talk about constantly before he died.
R: A lot of the locations where it was filmed have changed over the years. The drag race from the beginning was filmed at 23rd and Iowa, which back then was just a dirt road...
K: The main character in the movie, played by Candace Hilligoss, moves from Lawrence to Utah to be a church organist and stays at a boarding house. The boarding house is actually located at 6th and Louisiana. That house went up for sale a couple of years ago... I got all dressed up and tried to look like I had enough money to buy this house... Just to tell you how far from the truth that was, I didn't even know how to do it, I just thought I would go up to the house and knock on the door in my fancy outfit. The homeowner and the realtor just happened to be sitting at the kitchen table and they both saw me, they were signing all the final paperwork for him to sell this house. So I came in and I said, "Wow! I see that this house is for sale! It's such a beautiful home..." The realtor was obviously very interested in finishing up this important paperwork so that she could get her commission. The owner started showing me around the house, and he figured me out right away... He got out his videotape of Carnival of Souls, which was signed by John Clifford, the screenwriter. I started talking with him about how I'd been to Salt Air and how interested I was in Carnival of Souls and about the soundtrack with Gene Moore... Of course, the script was really short, so they depended a lot on the soundtrack to provide the entire feel of the movie. And so much of the movie was about this female character being haunted by a demon, which isn't a real dialogue-laden kind of activity. I think that people don't recognize how influential the soundtrack was, with the organ being such a key instrument in horror movies.... Anyway, this guy gave me the Carnival of Souls tour, like, "This is the bedroom!" and "Here's where she pushed furniture against the window to keep out Death!" It's amazingly small, they make it look so huge. That was her entire living space in the movie, and it's just this small bedroom... The realtor was anxious to get me out of there so she could finish up this paperwork with the owner, but the owner was obviously having a great time sharing his house with someone who appreciated the movie. The realtor kept saying things like, "Goodbye! Okay, thanks!" to try and move me out of there. She had a little tag on that said MARY RICHARDS, and I was like, "Oh, wow! That's so cool that your name is Mary Richards! You know, one of my favorite shows when I was a kid was Mary Tyler Moore, and one of the things I loved so much about that show was how Mary and Rhoda had such a SPECIAL relationship with each other." You could see that she was just STEAMING!
- Sunday, October 31, 2004, 7:30 p.m.
- Liberty Hall Cinema, 644 Massachussets Street, Lawrence
- All ages / $13
R: The tables would have turned if you would have found out that her life partner's name really WAS Rhoda... This good friend of mine used to know a guy who lived in North Lawrence. He had some film reels of Carnival of Souls, and he wanted to put together some sort of a party where he could project them onto the side of a house. I don't know if he couldn't track down a projector to show it, or if it was going to cost too much money to run sound, or if there just wasn't enough interest in it... It just kind of fell through. But these same guys, this guy with the reels and this friend of mine, they had gotten a group of investors together to try and buy the Varsity theater when it went on the auction block. They wanted to keep it running as a movie house where they would show old drive-in classics. They were actually the highest bidders until Urban Outfitters came into town and decided that they wanted to outbid everyone by something like five million dollars, just to make sure they were the ones who got the space. That's why there isn't a good movie house in Lawrence anymore.
K: I spent a while living in Austin, and one of the things I loved about it was the Alamo Drafthouse. It's a movie theater, they show art films and independent films. They also show lots of midnight movies, lots of local films from that area, they have film festivals there all the time. It's an incredibly supportive venue for any kind of film arts. They don't charge much for admission... they sell food there, they sell beer, they have waitresses that come to your theater seat. So you can sit there and drink and have dinner and watch a movie and not have to pay that much money. They use the food sales to supplement the fact that they can show these really cheap movies. It's great because they have such a huge variety of films there. Austin is known as a place that's really supportive of independent film makers, and I think a lot of it is inspired by the fact that there's venues like that. I came back and found out that the Varsity was closed, and somebody told me the name of the owner. I looked up the guys name in the phone book and I started leaving all these messages on his answering machine about the Alamo Drafthouse and all the different movies they showed there... I mentioned that they showed The Tingler, that they equipped the seats with shockers and they made you sign a medical waiver going in there and all the waitresses were wearing these vinyl nurse's uniforms. It was great, and there's nothing like that in Lawrence at all.
R: It's weird when you think about it like that, because Carnival of Souls, which was made mostly in Lawrence by people who lived in Lawrence, has gone on to become the most influential horror movie ever made. Most people think that Night of the Living Dead is the most influential, but George Romero has gone on record as saying that Carnival of Souls totally influenced the look and feel of that movie... he wouldn't have even made it if it weren't for Carnival of Souls. So I wonder why there isn't more of a vibrant film underground in this town? Everything is so commercialized now.
K: It's funny, though, because at the time Carnival of Souls came out, it was a huge flop. It wasn't until it found this cult following later on that it began getting the deserved notoriety that it has.
R: Other locations?
K: The Trinity Episcopal Church at 10th and Vermont.
R: You can still go there and see those cool stained glass windows, and that's where the organ was. The organ was made at the old Reuter Organ Factory down on New Hampshire street. A lot of the interior shots of her playing the organ were filmed there.
K: The church is host to one of my favorite scenes in the movie. She's rehearsing on the organ... She starts out playing the church music, and slowly she begins to remember the face of the man who's been haunting her...
R: Which is Herk Harvey, the director. And ironically enough, we're getting the church organ now. Just the frame, without the guts, but we've got a lot of the old wooden pipes. Some of them are stamped with a date: 1910, 1907, 1908... The church was going to burn the frame.
K: They were getting rid of the old organ to make room for the new one, apparently they were going to burn it. But a friend of mine salvaged it and has been keeping it in his garage for all these years. He's running out of room for it, so he's going to give it to us.
R: What we should do is put the frame back together and pay someone to put the guts back into it...
K: ...or turn it into a shrine for CARNIVAL OF SOULS!
R: Then we could charge people to come over and touch our organ! Now... Outside of Lawrence, a lot of this movie was also filmed in Salt Lake City. Most of it takes place in Salt Lake City, but a lot of the exteriors that are "Salt Lake City" were ACTUALLY filmed in Lawrence. But the Salt Air dome, which is the centerpiece of the film, where the actual carnival takes place...
K: When I visited my friend Cassie in Salt Lake City, we went to the Salt Air Pavilion. She did all this historical research and found out that it was first built as a tourist attraction. The Mormon community wanted to show the rest of the United States that Mormons were "normal." So they built this bizarre Pavilion right by this lake that you can NEVER sink in, one of the seven natural wonders of the world... And they built these huge, exotic, Moorish towers, and that became their erection of Mormon normality. I think they wanted to emphasize their recreational side, but what came out was just the fetishism. The Pavilion endured a fire and a flood but was eventually destroyed. It was completely torn down, then they rebuilt it. In all of the literature about Salt Air, they insist that it's in the same location as the original Pavilion. This is what makes Carnival of Souls such an interesting document... When they filmed it, the Pavilion was abandoned and it wasn't in use anymore. It was condemned. And that's the ORIGINAL Salt Air Pavilion. In the movie, she drives from the highway to this long causeway that goes out to the Pavilion. It's far from the road, it's right on the edge of the lake. The NEW Pavilion is built right on the edge of the highway, and it's VERY far from the lake. So, if you've seen the movie, you KNOW that there's this bizarre revisionist history going on. What's so confusing is, there's no reason for them to lie about the new location. But there's remnants, burnt pieces of tile and wood and a path of ruin where the causeway used to be.
R: There was a remake of Carnival of Souls that came out a while back. POOR! Let me stress to you: POOR! It has nothing in common with the original, other than the twist ending... which has been ripped off by everything from The Sixth Sense-- which everyone thinks is brilliant until they see Carnival of Souls and realize that Shamalamadingdong is the worst director in history-- to The Others, which actually wasn't so bad. Wes Craven produced the remake, and it was TERRIBLE. From what I've read, Candace Hilligoss wanted to do a sequel, she talked about it with Herk Harvey before he died. And the person Herk willed the rights to had this verbal agreement with her, but when he died this guy sold the rights to Wes Craven, who instead hired some director to do a remake.
K: What a travesty!
R: Remember the first night we hung out?
K: Yeah... We were sitting in my living room and I had my CD player on rotation, and the Carnival of Souls soundtrack started playing. At that time, you had been checking out my video collection and you noticed that I had Carnival of Souls, and I was surprised that you even knew what that movie was. Fewer people than you'd think know about Carnival of Souls.
R: It's shocking to me that anyone WOULDN'T know about it, living in Lawrence...
K: Exactly. We started talking about the movie and then the soundtrack came on... Even though people love the movie, not a lot of them will sit through a soundtrack of church/horror organ music.
R: I don't know any of those people.
K: Oh, you do, you just need to block that part of their personality out in order to deal with them. It's so great because there's parts of the soundtrack where a woman just starts SCREAMING.
R: I was going through your videotapes, as I often do when I meet new people...That's how I define whether or not I'm going to be someone's friend. Do they like crappy music? How about their movie selection? Believe it or not, these things say a lot about a person's chemical make-up... For example, if they own the movie Armageddon, I won't ever speak to them again. If they own any sort of ESPN Jock Jamz type thing, GONE! But I saw we had several movies in common... I think Carnival of Souls is the defining movie in our relationship.
K: I KNOW! It's the defining movie of The Program, which IS our relationship.
R: I think if it weren't for Carnival of Souls, you would have rejected me outright.
K: When you saw that I had it, you said "Get out of my head! How did you get in my head?"
R: It was at the bottom of your stack, and I couldn't believe it. I knew you were a girl after my own heart.
K: You stayed the night that night... and it's been The Program ever since!