Carnival of Souls (1962)
Directed by: Herk Harvey.
Written by: John Clifford.
Starring: Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry), Frances Feist (Mrs. Thomas – Landlady), Sidney Berger (John Linden), Art Ellison (Minister), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Herk Harvey (The Man).
Apparently Carnival of Souls became a cult hit because it aired on TV late at night often – and that makes complete and total sense. It isn’t a particularly scary movie, but it is a completely and totally surreal one, a film that plays a strange dream edging into nightmare territory, that doesn’t really operate according to our logic, but a more dreamlike one. It would be the perfect film to watch if you stumbled out of bed at 1 in the morning, and couldn’t get back to sleep – or perhaps even better, drifting in and out of sleep as you watched it, never being quite sure what you saw and what you imagined. The film wasn’t really noticed when it was released in 1962 – it was starred unknown actors, and had a first time director and writer (neither of whom would go on to make another film) – and yet it became a key inspiration for filmmakers like George A. Romero and David Lynch.
The film opens with two cars full of young people doing what you’d expect two cars full of young people to do – acting like idiots. There is an accident, one of the cars – carrying a trio of girls – goes off a bridge into the water. Hours later, one of the girls – Mary (Candace Hilligoss) emerges – apparently fine. She doesn’t want to stick around her small town however – and has a job lined up as a church organist in Salt Lake City. On the drive two strange things happen – first, she says the ghostly face of a man in her car window – giving her a momentary fright (that man will appear frequently throughout the film) – and the second is she drives by an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, and is drawn in by its haunted atmosphere.
The plot of the movie from there is fairly thin – Mary is a strange young woman, and you can never quite tell how she’ll act next. One of the weaknesses in the film is that because the film starts with the accident, we never really know what she was like beforehand – and because she leaves everyone who knows her behind, we don’t know just how much she has changed from before. The film implies that Mary has become sexually frigid – because of the accident, although considering she only rejects her creepy across the hall neighbor, I don’t think that really works.
Still, the movie isn’t so much about its plot – or even, really, about its characters. It is all about the atmosphere – and on that level what director Herk Harvey accomplished with $30,000 and a three week shooting schedule is pretty amazing. Apparently inspired by the likes of Bergman and Cocteau, Harvey went out to try and achieve something similar to those masters shooting in Kansas. What’s amazing is how close he really got. The sound design here is brilliant (a definite influence on Lynch – who since Eraserhead, has obsessed about sound) – to help create the otherworldly atmosphere – but it goes deeper than that. The limited budget perhaps helped here – the editing is strange (how much coverage do you think he could have shot), and the performances don’t feel at all natural. That may just be because the actors aren’t very good, but it certainly contributes to the strange overall feel of the movie. The big set pieces here are not scares or special effects – but simply when Mary has a few breaks with reality, and no one around her can see or hear her – and she runs around trying in vain to be noticed. This leads up to the brilliant climax at the carnival itself – which if you can watch without thinking of Night of the Living Dead, it’s probably because you haven’t seen Romero’s masterpiece.
As a film unto itself, Carnival of Souls is not a masterpiece, but it sure is creepy and effective – creating images and sounds that stay with you, long after the plot and characters have faded away. As a key influence on horror films going forward though, its impact has been invaluable. I wish it had found its cult status earlier in its life cycle – and that perhaps Herk Harvey could have made something else. Now, it’s one of those rare unicorns – like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Barbara Loden’s Wanda or Leonard Kastle’s The Honyemoon Killers – great films by a director who never made another one. .