Hank Hoffman, costumed head to toe in psychedelic garb including sunglasses and hat, welcomed the crowd to Best Video and Cultural Center on Saturday night for the Light Upon Blight Ensemble’s scoring of the 1962 cult horror film Carnival of Souls.
Things were about to get “very cultural,” he joked.
This was Light Upon Blight’s third annual Halloween show at Best Video and the first to a film that had actual sound (which was muted for this performance, though subtitles did appear on the screen as it played). According to Pete Brunelli and Bob Gorry, bandmate Jeff Cedrone had chosen this particular film.
“I wanted to play more brooding synth-based music this time and wanted something more quirky and weird,” said Cedrone. Carnival of Souls had reportedly been a big influence on American directors David Lynch and George Romero; that had attracted him to it as well. According to Brunelli, the group rehearsed once before Saturday along with the film itself. Some in the group had seen the film before that rehearsal. Some had not.
“Otherwise”, said Brunelli, “this was all improv.”
The ensemble members included Brunelli on bass, Gorry on guitar, Cedrone on guitar, synth and piano, Richard Brown on alto sax, and both Pete Riccio and Tom Hogan on drums. Setting up in the front of the room surrounding and facing the movie screen, they watched the movie and played along, providing score to the film.
Carnival of Souls begins with a car containing three women, challenged to a drag race by another car full of men, goes off a bridge and into the water below. One of the women named Mary somehow survives and surfaces. The car itself is not found. The plot then follows Mary as she moves to a new place, where she has gotten a job as a church organist. Her travels are punctuated with eerie music (as indicated in the subtitles with “changes to eerie organ piece”) and the appearance of an unidentified ghoul. With the subtitles at various points indicating what the original score was playing — or what sounds were being heard (including “light orchestration” and “thunder rumbling”) — the ensemble kept pace. Cedrone switched between guitar and synth and piano as the mood suited. Brown’s sax became more scattered and disjointed as Mary herself became so. Riccio and Hogan always complimented but never competed with one another to punctuate the events. Gorry added percussion with an occasional knocking on the body of his guitar and used a thin stick along with his instrument. Brunelli added his low and often ominous bass lines.
As Mary frantically searched the radio dial on her car, the ensemble played more frantically. When a fellow lodger in the house where she rented a room made a play for her, the music got more ominous but in a different way, as he persisted in his attentions even after she reported her disinterest.
As the movie progresses, Mary increasingly experiences periods where others around her neither see nor hear her. She is increasingly doubted and discounted by those she does speak with when she tries to explain her experiences of repeatedly seeing the same ghoul and being unable to connect with or be heard by other people. She becomes aware of not wanting to socialize. When she finally accepts a date with her persistent suitor, she ends up seeing the ghoul again and he tells her she is losing her mind and leaves. This reporter could not help but find the idea of a woman trying to speak her mind and being told she is crazy while also dealing with a very specific degree of toxic masculinity all too timely — even at times uncomfortable.
Light Upon Blight created the right mood in every scene, whether Mary was simply sitting and talking to another person or encountering ghouls. The dialogue in Carnival of Souls is sparse and even at times silly (at one point Mary thanks her fellow lodger for bringing her coffee by saying “it was unsanitary, but delicious”). The audience, filling nearly all the seats in the darkened performance space, was enraptured. Chatter was virtually nonexistent. The film’s 90-minute running time felt like even less. As the final scenes brought Mary to face the ghoul who has been haunting her as well as numerous other ghouls — and her own ghoulish self — the ensemble seemed to grow even stronger and more energized.
Do I spoil the ending for you? I can, but I won’t.
“I don’t belong in this world,” Mary says as she tries to figure out what is happening to her: “That’s what it is. Something separates me from other people”. As both a woman and an artist, it was easy for this reporter to understand that sometimes our scariest encounters are all too alive and real.