Camp David

CAMP DAVID MARCH 2011: THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, A CARNIVAL ENCOUNTER

By • Mar 9th, 2011 •

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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY: A CARNIVAL ENCOUNTER

While the drive-in was a rite of passage for the baby boomers of my generation I must give television its due as an influence as well. Outside of the Shock Theater packages of Universal Horrors televised in the early 60’s the one film that really made a lasting impression on me was CARNIVAL OF SOULS. This low-budget mood piece is best served if you are by yourself late at night watching it unfold between station breaks advertising used cars.

While not a great film by any means, the lack of star power (in fact the whole film was done by unknowns in front of and behind the camera) allows the viewer to drift into a dream state within the film itself. vThe scenes that really make you jump all involve the film’s director, the late Herk Harvey. His phantom-like performance while in white face–a walking dead man the likes of which we would see again in the films of George Romero–is a tour-de-force.

Now, this is a film which those of us that saw it at an impressionable age best remember as being much better than it really was, and much more frightening when convincing one of your friends to sit through it as well. I held a place of honor for CARNIVAL OF SOULS in my memory for decades until 1997.

In 1997 I was sitting in my kitchen on the corner of Beverly and Oakhurst when I noticed a tall, blond woman walking across the courtyard; even from a distance I seemed to recognize her as someone familiar to me from my distant past. She continued down the path until she reached the manager’s apartment and then went in. The manager was a woman who had worked in Hollywood for years and was now doing script-doctoring to make extra money since she had been long retired from any professional endeavors. The woman in question turned out to be none other than Candace Hilligoss, the lead in CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

Candace had the kind of face, with sharp features and large expressive eyes, that made you notice her, especially when she appeared to be frightened. Candace had in fact written a script entitled DAKOTA ASHES, a Western of sorts in the manner of LONESOME DOVE. Helen, the manager, told me later that she thought Candace had written a very commercial script and should find an agent to help her place it for a potential mini-series.

The entire afternoon was so surreal …I mean, to see someone you had watched as a child on the late, late show all of the sudden materialize at your front door really needed to be fully taken in. Candace came over to my apartment after she finished her business with Helen as she wanted to meet me, having heard I had been an agent in the business as well.

A plan had begun to take shape in my mind as she sat in my living room sipping a cup of tea: here was a bona-fide cult figure from a highly regarded horror film who had never done the convention circuit that was so much a part of my life that year, having just come back from Kevin Clement’s Chiller Theater in New Jersey. I had taken both Martine Beswicke and Barbara Steele to that venue as well as Mary Woronov.

Candace was at that time doing temp work as a secretary and was not the least bit adverse to making some money signing autographs. I explained the situation to her as best I could, knowing that at least for the first few shows she would more than likely do very well since none of the fans had ever seen her outside of midnight screenings of the now-legendary film that forever sealed her image with that of Mary Henry, a young woman trapped between the veil of life and death. Now, I need to explain that in spite of the passing of time from 1962 until what was then 1997, Candace Hilligoss looked exactly like she did in the film. This coupled with the fact that she seemed to be Mary Henry in almost every other way as well. I remember joking with her about it at the time and she quickly explained that she had studied the method with Lee Strasberg in New York as well as having done a great deal of stage work back east before marrying Nicolas Coster another New York actor who was quite successful in his own right working non stop in TV soaps as well as commercials. They divorced in 1981, and not on good terms. In fact it was her dream to sell this script of hers to television where it would then become the next LONESOME DOVE. Then it would be her great pleasure to rub all this in his face when the series went on to glory at the Emmys.

After our initial meeting Candace and I began working together in earnest to launch her first appearance as a cult star at the RAY COURTS AUTOGRAPH SHOW at the Beverly Garland hotel. The first order of business was to secure photographs from CARNIVAL for her to sign. The real problem with a film like this is that the advertising was almost non-existent. The posters were amateurish, with only half a set of lobby cards (with only two featuring her). The video poster was the best artwork so we looked around for as many of those as we could, to sell at a higher price. It would be the 8×10 stills that would provide the foundation for a table at the show. There were no National Screen Service stills from the film to be found, so in a moment of inspiration Candace decided to call her late director’s wife Pauline, who was nowvery old and nearly blind. The next day Candace came by my apartment with the news that she had indeed spoken with Pauline Harvey and she was sending us all she could find on the film to help with Candace’s plight. Candace was somewhat concerned about whether or not a nearly blind woman could locate much less choose what would be useable for fans to purchase at our table. After a few days the package arrived and she was horrified to discover that all Pauline Harvey could come up with were 35mm frames from the film itself. As soon as I saw what they were I calmed her fears by explaining that these were pure gold as they were all the great moments from the film, many of which were fantastic shots of Herk Harvey himself as the leader of the undead in that amazing pavilion at Saltair.

Director Herk Harvey in the background.

It took us nearly two and a half months to get the material ready for the show. One of the more time-consuming aspects of this were the tee-shirts that Candace insisted upon producing at her own expense, which were costly and in my opinion not the wisest of investments for a show like Ray Courts. Barbara Steele and I made the same mistake with BLACK SUNDAY tee-shirts in New Jersey and we were still trying to sell them months later at the Dark Shadows Con in LA. However, Candace would hear none of my arguments, so CARNIVAL OF SOULS tee-shirts we would sell, with Candace’s ironic signature across them saying, “Hauntingly yours.”

Director Herk Harvey

During this time I tried to discover just what did happen with her career that she only had two feature films to her credit CARNIVAL and the Del Tenny film CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE, whose only real claim to fame was introducing Roy Scheider to films (which of course led to a very successful career, including an Oscar). Candace could really barely remember making the film, but did tell me that Roy Scheider was okay on that particular film and that they socialized a bit after it was done; but in her own words, “Roy was never really interested in helping other actors and really never tried to help me secure parts after he became a star.”

CARNIVAL OF SOULS is still highly regarded by genre fans and certain critics who observe that while the film itself is cheaply made with amateur performers, except for perhaps Candace and Sidney Berger (who by the way was selling his autograph at conventions as well), who play well in their scenes together, the real power of this movie resides in what we imagine long after we have watched what has become a collective nightmare for all that have fallen under its spell.

Herk Harvey with Candace Hilligoss

Whatever John Clifford or Herk Harvey had in mind when they began this project, while far removed from their educational films as Centron Studio employees, the film somewhat looks like an educational film about the dangers of reckless driving as well as the pitfalls of straying too far from God’s grace, as Mary Henry surely does to find herself in the hellish limbo of non-existence. Perhaps CARNIVAL OF SOULS is best served as an influence on more prolific directors like David Lynch, and especially Francis Ford Coppola, whose APOCALYPSE NOW has Martin Sheen emerge from the water in much the way Herk Harvey does in CARNIVAL’s best moments of ghostly splendor.

Meanwhile the day of the Ray Courts show is finally at hand – three days of sitting at a table with Candace Hilligoss, meeting her public and hopefully selling much of what we spent the last two and a half months preparing for this celebration of all things ghostly. At this point all of our conversations had been about the show or her plans for her script but now another bitter demon was coming out of the closet: the dreaded remake of CARNIVAL OF SOULS produced by Wes Craven and without any input from Candace, which was all the more galling for her because of a long-cherished treatment of her own design that she showed me. In it she was back from the dead with a ghostly assistant to bridge the portal from one dimension to another. I was rather impressed with her concept of filming all the sequences in the land of the dead in black and white while the living remained in color. Candace naturally assumed that any producer intent on remaking the film would have to have its original star in tow or else the legion of its fans would fail to pay to see a remake without her.

Well, we all know what happened with the remake: it went straight into Video Hell, but unfortunately it took Candace’s dreams of a comeback with it. The irony of Candace Hilligoss is that her character in the film was a cynical, bitter woman whose lack of faith literally placed her soul in a netherworld of non-existence. Herk Harvey never made any more films like CARNIVAL, nor would Candace ever act in anything like a lead role in her career, such as it was. She always told me her ex-husband did not want her to work and as a result she let the momentum go in favor of raising two children, both of whom were now grown up and successful in their own lives.

During the three days of the convention many people came to our table with glowing things to say about Candace, how well she looked and so forth. It seemed at least for that weekend that Candace Hilligoss was at last a star. On Sunday a middle-aged woman approached the table and asked for one of the stills of Candace looking quite lovely, I think a headshot of her made right after the film. The woman began to tell Candace about the first time she saw CARNIVAL OF SOULS and how the film haunted her for years afterward, and then she fished around in her purse for a photo of her daughter to show Candace. The woman proudly displayed the picture to Candace, exclaiming, “You know, I named her after you!” For a moment Candace was speechless and seemed quite touched. Candace smiled and then said, “Oh so this young lady is named Candace, too.” The woman looked at her for a moment and then replied “Oh, no dear, I called her Mary Henry.” Candace Hilligoss changed her expression ever so slightly after hearing this, looking even more like Mary Henry than she had all afternoon.

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7 Responses »

  1. We’re absolutely impassioned with the writing of David Del Valle; circumventing hyperbole, Mr. Del Valle’s work is incisive, personalized and quite riveting (an antidote to the infectious E! Channel syndrome). Modern (film-related) books are filler, littered with overly-familiar pictures and capricious, fanboy prose; as a very welcome option, we have turned to FIR. Del Valle’s reviews and description of his behind-the-scenes experiences are exemplary; we share his elation or disappointment with the interviewees. Keep up the truly great work.

  2. Candace’s work in “Carnival” is groundbreaking & legendary. I’ve been pleading with Chiller Theatre in NJ to ask her to appear. Probably my most sought after autograph! “Carnival” is one of my top 5 films of all time. Any chance of getting an address to send fan mail or request an autograph? Candace RULES!

  3. You know reading the above letter makes me wonder if this person actually read my article?? It is most unlikely I would know her address after the way we parted company. I found her to be as cold a character as the one she played in the film. In fact Candace is not acting in the film that is her to the ninth power in real life. end of story

  4. Interesting article,it’s one of the greatest horror films ever made and I would love to meet her also since it’s one of my all time favorites also..thanks David.

  5. As I have mentioned to Mr. Del Valle in private, my own experiences with the real-life Candace was far more frightening than anything in CARNIVAL OF SOULS! It’s interesting that no one has brought up the obvious connection CARNIVAL has with David Lynch’s debut film, ERASERHEAD in 1977. The two lead characters are named “Mary” and “Henry” and silent movie organ music wafts through both films, along with similar expressionistic black-and-white photography.

  6. So, in other words, Mr. Del Valle had a bad encounter with the star of the film, and that encounter somehow magically turned sour to his taste a film he had previously admired. How very objective and logical.

    That said, I do at least sympathize with his feelings, if not with his petulance and lack of objectivity. Having a negative encounter with an artist certainly can spoil one’s future enjoyment of the work. That’s one reason why I prefer not to meet those who are responsible for works that I enjoy. On the other hand, unlike Mr. Del Valle, I have never lost the ability to distinguish between hurt feelings and impartial judgment of a work, itself.

  7. you know I rarely get letters like Kevin’s simply because most of my readers actually take the time to read my articles before commenting….first and foremost I always loved Carnival of Souls regardless of what sort of experience I encountered with Ms Hilligoss…..The film as I stated in my article is “part of a collective nightmare” much like Night of the Living dead…..end of story

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