“Folks, if you enjoyed that shot of her furtively staring at something, then boy, do I have good news for you!”
Have you ever crashed your car into a lake, only to escape, miraculously alive? Yeah, me too. Last Wednesday was crazy! Ever play an organ so good that you can basically wave your hands over the keyboard like Jareth the Goblin King playing a theremin and still produce a song good enough to get kicked out of a church? I tried on a kazoo once, but it didn’t panflute out for me. (To editor: please delete that “joke.”) Well, the two instances described occur in the under-the-radar horror classic Carnival of Souls. The film is director Herk “Name Sounds like Barf Noise” Harvey’s one-hit wonder. 1962 had no idea what to do with this groundbreaking, eerie flick. As described in CutPrintFilm’s own Top 50 Horror Films of All Time, Carnival is an unsettling, surrealist nightmare which leads up to one of cinema’s classic twist endings, right up there with Citizen Kane and Wayne’s World.
The moody genre gem was the target of those guys over at Rifftrax’s newest, spookiest cinematic hitjob, beamed live from the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Tennessee. Rifftrax, as you may remember from my Rifftrax-approved article about the reunion with their Mystery Science Theater 3000 roots from a few months ago, are a group of three dudes with rad attitudes about movie baditudes. Okay, that’s might not be from their official bio. Mike J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy take their sweet time to write humorous, joke-filled commentaries over some of our favorite flicks. Or least favorite, in cases such as The Room or Birdemic. Usually they do tend to stick to films with lesser merit for their live shows, such as the aforementioned garbage heaps, along with 1997’s Godzilla and Starship Troopers (which is not Verhoeven’s strongest film, admit it). Sure, on their website you can buy riffs for anything from the Star Warses to the Lords of the Ringses to Predator, not pluralized, thank goodness. Picking a prestige picture adds a certain flavor to the jokemakings of the night, which wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Last month, I went to go see the Rifftax boys take on Mothra, the original Japanese film from 1961. That movie was so bizarre and 60s Japanese Wacky (not limited to two, foot-high fairies riding a miniature carriage while singing hypnotic lounge jams) that the trio didn’t necessarily have to make jokes, or didn’t have any jokes to make. They let the film speak for itself. It was the quietest I’ve heard the guys out of my myriad viewings both at the theater and at home. I’m glad to say that Carnival of Souls was a real carnival of laughs and a return to form. I had to wipe tears from my eyes on more than one occasion as the night progressed.
To start us off, per usual, we had the assortment of cringe-enducing short films as hors d’oeuvres. Fun fact: witches are not known for being clean. I know, right? They’re green and gritty and whatever. Water literally melts that one from that old movie. “The Dirt Witch Cleans Up” knocks that stereotype asunder, just right out of the park, man, oh boy! The short was produced by Encyclopedia Brittanica which, as Mike casually states, “is like if someone printed out and alphabetized…Wikipedia.” Actually, we get one of the funniest comments of the night immediately as we’re introduced to a preteen girl, jumping around on a trampoline in a leotard. The film freeze frames as the girl is doing the splits, mid-air. “Whoever decided to freeze this shot should be put on an FBI watch list,” quips Corbett through gritted teeth. The entire audience lit up. That enthusiasm continued through this meandering, pointless “educational” video. A small girl gives a “witch” that speaks in a predictable chiasmus (“Night will become Day! Day will become night!”) a bath. Same plot as A New Hope, basically. There’s an airy Goblin knock-off ambient-style scoring assortment of synth noises that guides us towards our conclusion, which only succeeds in confounding both the viewers and hosts even further. The guys to ponder what the point of the short was. “To not be a walking pile of filth?” is all Corbett can muster.
The second short, Masks of Grass, is a callback to that reunion event which aired a similarly themed video produced by the ACI Film Company and their infinite supply of “weed and grant money” according to Nelson. It must be some awful attempt to erect a franchise, I’m guessing. It’s not as bad as Annabelle, but so very close. Last time was grass-based toys, this time is masks, as implied by the title. It’s as horrifying as it sounds. It’s basically a group of kids from The Village of the Damned if it was situataed on that Lord of the Flies island. They start wearing masks crafted from grass, weeds, flowers, cardboard, metal disks, glue, and 100% pure terror. “Eric Stoltz and Cheech & Chong’s Masks of Grass,” Murphy throws out at the title, trying to alleviate the incoming pain.
There’s not much to this one, content wise. It’s static shots of children assembling terrifying masks from garbage, guided by a soothingly ominous female narrator who mispronounces “adult” as “aye-dult.” We see kids flying a mask as a kite, for some reason, which the trio assumes to be the childtribe’s God. A booming Murphy bellows “The Sky God commands you: do my bidding!” The masks the kids come up with aren’t s-s-s-s-smokin’ (is this a hackneyed reference?) Once the masks are shown in their completed forms, most of them look like Alien Facehuggers, only they don’t choke the kids. The children’s eyes plead that they wish that were the case, however. Audible shuddlers emerged from the crowd. The trio shiver, and Corbett weakly states “it’s searing into my soul, you guys!” I felt it too, man. For a solid few moments, during a montage of the finished creepy life-stealing masks, the guys didn’t even have to say anything. People were snickering, groaning, and giggling to their heart’s content. At the end of the day, the film just wants people to “start noticing grass, damnit!” At least, that’s what Corbett posits.
Now we arrive at the main attraction: the fully color-restored film with an entirely new hour in a half of riffs. The gang actually already had released a riff of Carnival of Souls on DVD in 2009. For long time fans, this is a nice bonus. For new fans, it’s a great entry point, with a little treat to check out later to see how much changed over seven years. I can’t say if there were any callbacks or anything like that, as I have yet to look at the original riff. I’m eager to do so.
While now considered a classic, Carnival of Souls hasn’t aged, like, great, you know? It’s a great time capsule of the early 1960s, when women weren’t people and men could sexually harass women freely. So glad we got over that. Parts of the film are, in this modern day and age, going to be either uncomfortable for some viewers, or unintentionally funny to others. Old time periods are weird, man. The audio syncing in the film was never perfect to begin with, so we get lots of mouths moving with no words, or no mouths moving with words. “Are we gonna get more mouths moving with no words?” asks Corbett after the umpteenth time that had occurred. But not to worry; the jokes were a mile a minute, with very little dead air. Any dead air was for the guys to breathe, or to let some of the wacky, bad acting happen before us in stunned glory. It was a great balance of the trio’s jokes along side 1960s-filmmaking-and-budgetary-limitations-based comedy.
Some of the best riffs were actually one-word non sequiturs that happened when dead or crazy-eyed characters would pop up solo in a close up, for some reason or another. The word “underpants!” screamed by Corbett brought the house down. A series of dumb, caveman noises emanating from Nelson perfectly illustrate an incredulous mechanic’s series of facial “expressions.” A droll “L-l-ladies-s-s” rolling off of Corbett’s tongue towards the end also got quite the rise out of the crowd. Otherwise, a personal favorite was Murphy impersonating Heath Ledger’s Joker, with a practiced laziness, when one of the ghouls appears, asking “Ya wanna know how I got these scars?…actually, nevermind, it’s not that great of a story.” Most of the jokes were at lead actress Candace Hilligoss’ expense. Due to her constant display of bewilderment, the guys quip that “her face always seems to ask ‘how does saran wrap work?’” Fresh joke, man! It’ll stay that way for a while, too. You know…because of the saran wrap. Dang. No wonder they haven’t invited me to join the writing staff.
You know what? This was fun. Carnival of Souls on its own is a mystifying journey that straddles the line between reality and fantasy with an eerie spookiness laden throughout in every scene. Carnival of Souls with a Rifftrax commentary is a Carn-HAH-ival of LOLs. It is very late writing this so I’m not operating at full capacity (or am I)? There were no major gaffs this time around, the guys were in their element with top-notch humor consistent throughout the duration of the night, the crowd laughed on their own, which only made the mood even lighter and infectious. Plus, this time it didn’t cut out a half-hour early like it did with the MST3K reunion show. Maybe the powers that be were trying to tell me something by letting me finish the whole film. Maybe I should treat people better before I become but a ghost, show even a modest amount of vulnerability, or I should allow myself to be taken into some passion or school of thought so intensely that I can finally belong somewhere in the world. I’m not sure, all I got as a parting gift was Murphy’s summation: “Being a church organist kills!”
The special re-broadcast of Carnival of Souls is happening on Monday, October 31st! Scary! Otherwise, be sure to catch Rifftrax’s upcoming Holiday Double Feature (feat. Weird Al Yankovic) on Thursday, December 1st at 7pm CT. Visit www.fathomevents.com for more information & tickets, or www.rifftrax.com for more commentaries