We all come across cult films in our own time and place and for me, before the days of the internet and social media, I was staying in New York City in Autumn ’89, closer to this film’s release than now, when I came across an ad – possibly in The Village Voice or a flyer in Bleecker Bob’s record shop in the Village – promoting a screening of this film at the Bleecker Street Cinema. This was one of the great arthouse cinemas of old New York having been set up in 1960 in two townhouses dating back to the 1830s.
As director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford say in their commentary, this film is best viewed in cinema and that Thursday matinee was indeed a strange and memorable experience. The film’s style had already “dated” by the cynical post-punk, indie late 80s but there was clearly something special about the atmosphere created by the film and the theatre as we watched a dreamy nightmare of dislocation set against that most haunting of all locations; an abandoned fun fair… all laughter, and life long departed and yet with some kind of evil presence drawing the film’s main character back again and again to an unreality unknown.
This was Harvey’s only feature film having made his career in industrial and instructional documentary film making and it was after shooting one such film that he was driving home through Salk Lake City and went past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion, standing regal and threatening in the starkness of the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Inspired he began imagining a ghoulish dance of the dead inside the great hall and on his return asked his friend and co-worker at Centron Films, John Clifford, who was a writer there, how he'd like to write a feature which he duly did in three weeks.
|The Saltair Pavillion|
It may have been their only feature but there’s a lifetime of creepy ideas put into play from men who no doubt grew up on horror films, weird science fiction and EC Comics. They were also trained film makers which partly explains how they were able to make $33,000 last over 80 minutes of narrative! It’s a miracle of budgetary constrained innovation!
On first sight, I had assumed that most of the cast were
amateurs, but watching the film on the Criterion Blu-ray, I can see that most
were pros especially the ethereal Candace Hilligoss, as Mary Henry, the woman
who came to haunt herself and an actress of the Lee Strasberg School alongside Marylin
Monroe and Roy Schieder. She carries the whole film and has to as she is in
virtually every scene… Harvey recalled being disappointed when she first
arrived and was on the point of telling her that she wasn’t right for the role
until the next day when she turned up for shooting and was transformed into
Mary. As he said, “an actress” and she is able to convey absence as well as intimacy in a performance that is so well centred and yet so odd that we try to second guess her responses in vain... as with her character we have to let the life she has play itself out.
It's Mary’s incredible journey from a friendly car chase between her and two female pals and two guys on the outskirts of a town called Lawrence in Kansas. The girl’s car crashes off a bridge and whilst her friends are killed outright, somehow Mary makes it out alive and struggles onto shore. She takes a room in the town in a house run by a Mrs Thomas (Frances Feist) and we learn that she’s an organist who has come to take up a job at a church in nearby Salt Lake City. Here again the location made the story with Lawrence’s Reuter Organ Company providing a suitably atmospheric setting and dictating that Mary would be an organist.
|Candace Hilligoss energes from the cold, damp mud|
Hilligoss got paid $2,000, so needs must as the remainder of that micro-budget drives was the order of the day and the remarkable thing is how many of these calls Harvey and Clifford got right, especially to the extent they wanted atmosphere to create the unease and not gore or specific violence. They chose well for their cinematographer with the experienced Maurice Prather not only capturing eeriness day and night but also using speeded up film, just like FW Murnau in Nosferatu, to add an uncanny edge to the movements of the ghouls in the Saltair ballroom, and the relentless pursuit if Mary. The music was also perfectly creepy, with Gene Moore hitting the right tones on an instrument that is so very specific in its sound and often jars – trust me, I worked in a Butlins holiday camp in the early 80s, organs were very much a part of weird seaside entertainments for a live or an undead audience.
The film shows Mary on the edge, surrounded by normal life whilst increasingly seeing strange visions, and feeling displaced. The moment she is in a clothes store when the sound suddenly stops and she experiences an ominous silence is another masterstroke from Harvey… sitting in Bleeker Street in 1989, in a sunny late Autumn, it still sent shivers up the spine.
Sidney Berger plays John Linden, her neighbour who has the everyday hots for Mary and Harvey uses him as another point to which reflect the abnormality slowly engulfing her. He’s a nice enough guy, and in the 1989 reunion featured on one of the Criterion Blu-ray’s extras, the actor remembers the critic Roger Ebert as describing him as the definition of a “horny geek”. By then an acting teacher Berger clearly relished the film’s long-tailed cache, they all did and it’s a treat to see them relish the moment 27 years after the film stumbled onto the market after its distributors went bust (another long story).
|Candace and Sidney Berger, living up to Ebert's description|
Back on screen, Harvey cast himself as “The Man”, the leader of the pack of ghouls, who are seen in Mary’s dreams of the Saltair Pavilion and who keeps on popping up, haunting her waking moments and looking at her with hungry eyes. This intrusions on the everyday we all take for granted are increasingly effective and used sparingly by Harvey, who paces most of his film to perfection. It is the Pavilion itself that provides the most disturbance as the director felt when he first encountered it. He had a long career in film making but if you only had one feature film to your name, this is the one you’d chose. Once seen never forgotten.
I watched the Criterion edition which gives the film it’s UK Blu-ray debut and Harvey would have loved it, with so many extras celebrating his work on the film and elsewhere. Perfect or Halloween but really anytime… normal life is not as secure as it seems after all.