Flickchart Road Trip: Utah
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
I drank loads of coffee and caffeinated soda as I counted down the last few miles of Colorado before arriving in Utah. See, Utah is home of the Mormons, who don’t approve of caffeine. You can’t get it anywhere in the state.
That’s a joke, of course, and one of many probable misconceptions about Mormons. (It’s true that they don’t really dig caffeine, but you can of course get it in every store, and Mormons themselves are allowed to drink it.) A lot of what most people do know about Mormons is based on Hollywood (HBO’s Big Love), on documentaries (Errol Morris‘ Tabloid), on popular Broadway musicals (The Book of Mormon) and on presidential politics (Mitt Romney is famously a Mormon). I didn’t come to Utah planning to gain a broader understanding of this wacky religion … just to fill their coffers up a bit. Actually, I didn’t even have to do that, because the event I chose was free.
Every Thursday night from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., except for major holidays or when they are out of town, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir holds a rehearsal in the Tabernacle itself. (We’re in Salt Lake City now, if you’re following at home.) No less than 437 men and women stood up there and belted out the music — okay, the choir is actually comprised of 360 people — in that gorgeous hall with the world-renowned organ, and it was free and open to the public. Not bad. Hey, they weren’t exactly singing my type of music, but I wasn’t exactly paying them any money, either. It was impressive on a basic sonic level, and on a visual level at that, considering the grand space in which they performed. Did I mention that organ? It’s got more than 11,000 pipes, more than 100 of which are still functioning from the original 1867 organ that occupied this space.
What did surprise me was how few others were also watching this free performance. I guess Salt Lake City is not a huge tourist destination in early November, and all the locals have probably already seen the show as many times as they felt was personally necessary.
Speaking of organs, an organ factors in to my Utah movie, the Herk Harvey independent cult horror movie Carnival of Souls. I had never heard of this 1962 film before browsing for Utah options, but Flickcharters are apparently well acquainted with it, as they’ve ranked it #1245 globally. I watched it on Halloween night, since as you might imagine, Mormons aren’t big on Halloween either.
What it’s about
A drag race ends in tragedy when a car goes over the side of a bridge, disappearing underwater. After much too long for anyone to have survived, one of the passengers, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), emerges from the water, in shock but otherwise unharmed. Mary has been hired as an organist in a Utah church, and even though it’s been only a few days since the accident, she has a quick emotional recovery from the trauma, determined to put the incident behind her and start the new job. Crossing the border into Utah, she feels a sense of beckoning from an abandoned pavilion on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. A gas station attendant tells her it was once home to a carnival before closing its doors. That night as she’s still driving, she thinks she sees the ghoulish face of a man reflected in the passenger side window of her car, and then on the road in front of her. This is just the first of a number of apparent hallucinations and other unexplained incidents as she starts her new life in Utah, and Mary begins to wonder if the mysterious pavilion has anything to do with it.
How it uses the state
There’s a real sense of desolation given off by the salt flats of Utah, and seeing the ghostly shell of an old carnival set against that backdrop is chilling indeed. The director got the idea for the movie when driving through Utah and spotting the real abandoned Saltair Pavilion. The movie also shows a Welcome to Utah billboard as Mary drives across the border, and makes several references to the state in the dialogue.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Utah movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Carnival of Souls will battle:
1) 127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle). My Flickchart: #78/3581. Global: #742. Here’s further proof that knowing the ending of a true story does not always make the experience of watching it unfold any less thrilling. 127 Hours doesn’t become a tough watch until the very end, when (spoiler alert) Aron Ralston (James Franco) finally cuts off his own arm, which is wedged between two boulders in Blue John Canyon in eastern Wayne County, Utah. Only a visual stylist of Danny Boyle’s stature could make the minutes of celluloid until that point burst with so much vitality that not only are you not bored, but you’re pushed to the edge of your seat by the tension and propelled forward by aesthetic flourishes. Franco earned himself an Oscar nomination for carrying the film and make it pack one of the biggest emotional wallops of any in 2010. Boyle, meanwhile, continued to prove there’s no story he can’t tell.
2) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Steven Spielberg). My Flickchart: #816/3581. Global: #19. Before jet-setting through Italy, Germany and Turkey, the third Indiana Jones movie has its modest beginnings in Moab, Utah. In fact, the prologue featuring River Phoenix as a young Indy just may be the most memorable sequence in the movie, light and punchy and clever. That’s in keeping with Steven Spielberg’s agenda to give Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a friendlier tone than its bleaker predecessor, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, whose pushing of the PG envelope helped create the PG-13 rating. Decked out in a boy scout uniform, young Jones gets a golden cross away from a group of thugs to give to a museum, and a chase through a moving train ensues. What, you thought escaping a giant rolling ball in South America was his first taste of adventure?
3) Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme). My Flickchart: #1102/3581. Global: #2599. Jonathan Demme’s delightfully oddball film — more or less the beginning of his mainstream feature directing career — is the story of a Utah service station attendant who was supposedly made the beneficiary of Howard Hughes’ fortune after the reclusive billionaire handed him a handwritten last will and testament. It was supposed to be repayment for a favor done by Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) years earlier, when Melvin picked up Howard (Jason Robards) by the side of the road in Nevada after Howard had crashed his motorcycle, and drove him to Vegas, not knowing who he was. The majority of the narrative concerns the series of ups and downs in Melvin’s life in the intervening years, a section of the film that earned Mary Steenburgen an Oscar for best supporting actress. It’s a fun slice of Americana and a testament to the human spirit, without that being a backhanded compliment.
4) The World’s Fastest Indian (2005, Roger Donaldson). My Flickchart: #3082/3581. Global: #2652. The World’s Fastest Indian, on the other hand, is supposed to be a testament to the human spirit, but it just falls flat. The Indian in question is neither a person from India nor an insensitive name for a Native American, but rather, a modified motorcycle like the one you see above, designed to go really fast on really flat surfaces — surfaces such as the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Anthony Hopkins may seem a particularly old choice to be playing the driver of such a vehicle, but that’s how old New Zealander Burt Munro really was when he set a land-speed record for vehicles under 1,000 cc’s in 1967 — a record that still stands. Too bad Hopkins’ performance is based largely on saying things like “Crikey,” and the film is dramatically inert.
5) Broken Arrow (1996, John Woo). My Flickchart: #3421/3581. Global: #4247. Today, I know that John Woo is a hack who has an absurd reliance on doves fluttering in slow motion. I didn’t know this when I went to see Broken Arrow, so I was surprised by how much I hated it. It’s the story of two fighter pilots (John Travolta and Christian Slater) flying a mission over Utah carrying armed nuclear weapons. Travolta betrays Slater in an attempt to commandeer the weapons, and begins villainous scenery chewing that lasts pretty much the rest of the movie. A cat and mouse game involving a bunch of nasty mercenaries follows. Samantha Mathis is a park ranger. This movie is just dumb on almost every front, and Travolta’s dialogue is particularly bad.
First duel: Carnival of Souls vs. Melvin and Howard. Howard Hughes’ crashed motorcycle loses out to Mary Henry’s crashed car. Carnival of Souls wins.
Second duel: Carnival of Souls vs. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I have chosen … wisely. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wins.
Carnival of Souls finishes third out of the six movies.
I know what a low-budget movie from today looks like, but I wasn’t as familiar with what to expect from a low-budget movie circa 1962. After Carnival of Souls, I know pretty well — and if it’s these conditions that allow the creation of something like Herk Harvey’s cult classic, then I like low-budget films from 1962 pretty darn well indeed.
I wasn’t sure at first, though. The film seems to start in the middle of a sentence: here are some people in a car, accepting a challenge to go drag racing. The drag race results in one of the cars going off the side of a bridge into the water. We don’t have any more information than this before the opening credits roll. We’re not even sure, until Candace Hilligoss emerges from the water a few minutes later, which character we’re supposed to be following. The post dubbing of the dialogue in the recovery scene is almost laughably bad, and the editor seemed like he could be suffering a mild case of epilepsy. I was worried I’d be in for a long 83 minutes.
Then, mood takes over.
The stripped down techniques Harvey uses to create sustained dread are beyond eerie. Mary Henry sees the gaunt face of an older man appearing places it shouldn’t be, and Harvey surprises us in thrilling ways that never seem like cheap horror tropes. In these moments, he makes great use of lighting within the black and white scheme. These are not the only strange occurrences Mary experiences; there are also times when it appears the world can’t see or hear her. She continues to feel the draw of this abandoned pavilion near the Great Salt Lake, and her interactions with this building just ramp up the scare factor over the course of the narrative. It all builds toward a chilling finale that makes maximum use of makeup, movement and character proximity to leave a lasting impression.
I read in the notes about Carnival of Souls that it has been an influence for such filmmakers as David Lynch and George A. Romero. This is both a huge compliment to the film, and a natural conclusion from watching it.
After an ill-conceived detour to Bangkok for the second movie, the so-called Wolfpack return to their old Las Vegas stomping grounds for The Hangover Part III. I’ll meet them there as Flickchart Road Trip hits Nevada.