AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 82 mins/78 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Somewhere in Kansas, Mary Henry is riding in a car with two other young women when some men challenge them to a drag race. As they speed across a bridge, their car plunges into the river. Mary miraculously surfaces, but she cannot remember how she survived. She then moves to Salt Lake City, Utah, where she’s been hired as a church organist. However she keeps being haunted by a creepy pasty faced figure, keeps being pestered by the only other lodger at the boarding house in which she’s staying, and is mysteriously drawn to an abandoned pavilion on the shores of the lake….
In some respects it’s quite hard for me to rave about how good Carnival Of Souls is, though I reckon I’ll manage in the end. It never resembles anything other than a film made with very little money and time. The story is simple to the point that it feels like an extended episode from The Twilight Zone [and may indeed have been influenced by one, The Hitchhiker, as well as the short story Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce], the acting is often amateurish, there are jarring edits, there are shots that don’t look like they’ve been processed properly – yet it has a genuinely nightmarish feel which few other films manage, even if they cost thousand times more, making it perhaps the ultimate film which is more the sum of its parts. It’s quietly sinister, never blowing over into proper thrills, but has a hypnotic pull which reels you into its very particular plane of existence and keeps you there, and contains imagery that haunted me for years when I first saw it as a teenager on TV, so much so that I was uneasy about even buying on video for a while; I was deep into horror by then and was fine with all sorts of scary and nasty stuff, but something about Carnival Of Souls really got to me. Why was this so? Re-watching it for the purposes of this review, it finally clicked why, and I can’t understand why it took me so long to realise, seeing as it was, in retrospect, so bleedin’ obvious. Despite its supernatural aspects, it seems to me to be primarily about loneliness, disconnectivity from the world and its people, something which I went through as a teenager when I was indeed very lonely and very disconnected, and examines these things in the guise of a supremely creepy horror movie.
One of the many unique things about it is that it was the only movie from director Herk Harvey. Well, some directors make loads of films yet never manage one classic. Harvey was a director and producer of industrial and educational pictures. One evening, he drove past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City and immediately imagined the film’s second to last scene, then rang colleague John Clifford to ask him if he wanted to write a feature taking said scene as a starting point. Star Candace Hilligoss had been offered a role in Psychomania but turned it down for Carnival of Souls, even though she considered this also to be a “take the money and run” assignment. Shooting lasted only three weeks, Harvey’s crew only consisting of five other people besides himself. The money largely came from local businessmen; the rest of the budget was deferred, and some scenes were filmed illicitly with locals being paid off to allow the filming. One reel consisting of the ghouls rising from the salt flats was accidentally destroyed, then distributors Herz-Lion cut five minutes of footage for theatrical release; Mary stopping at a gas station and discussing the carnival building with the attendant, a longer dialogue sequence between the Minister and the Mechanic, and Dr. Samuels talking to Mrs Thomas the landlady, but they remained in TV prints. It’s a shame that some of the DVDs had these scenes back in the movie but not the Blu-ray, due to the only source for these scenes being videotape and which therefore would have stuck out amidst all the high definition. The film doesn’t really suffer for their removal – in fact you could say that it’s helped by the deletion of some footage which Mary isn’t present at. Carnival Of Souls was released to little interest or praise, but it gradually picked up a cult following and was re-released in 1989 to – of course – lots of interest and praise.
We go straight into the drag race challenge without any scene setting, and it’s unusual for a film of this vintage not to use rear projection for scenes set inside cars. The reason; they couldn’t afford the process, so they used a battery-powered hand-held camera for these shots. Low budget ingenuity at its best. The titles unfold over the lake into which the car Mary is in has crashed, but the car seems to have disappeared when everyone arrives to see what’s happened. Then we get the first of the film’s odd transitions which link scenes together, with a low angle shot looking up at some people on the bridge pointing and shouting at something, a something which turns out to be Mary, stumbling along some sand, which always reminds me of the only really good scene in The Mummy’s Curse, when Ananka rises from her dried up swampy grave. Similarly, a few scenes later, Mary asks a gas attendant the whereabouts of a boarding house, and the man points into the night. Black envelopes the screen until it’s pierced by a light and we realise that we’re inside a dark room into which Mary is entering. Just before this is a great double scare. Mary is driving along and, looking at her reflection in her right window, sees a leering ghoul; then she’s spooked by another ghoul looming right in front of her. This spectre, often referred as ‘The Man’, proceeds to keep appearing to Mary while the camera often cleverly frames the two as counterparts. Of course nobody believes her, yet he must be real surely, because, in one of many strange decisions in creating this story, we sometimes see him way before Mary does. So no predictable ambiguity there then. Mary was awfully determined to come to Salt Lake City for this organist job, but the loner doesn’t want a church reception even though the Minister tells her that, “you cannot live in isolation from the human race you know”.
Everything and everyone seems slightly askew. Carnival Of Souls is a good example of how flaws can actually add to a film’s effect. Aside from some inconsistency in the cinematography and some very jarring edits which may or may not have been intended considering the dreamlike flow of many other scenes into each other [I’d say that some were and some weren’t], this is most prominent with regard to the acting. Candace Hilligoss, the only professional performer in the film, is awkward, looks nervous and doesn’t even seem to want to be in it. The latter was actually true, though in later years she became proud of the film and even wrote a treatment for a sequel which she took to producer Peter Soby Jr., only for him to instead produce a mediocre film bearing the same title which bore no resemblance except for its ending. But Hilligoss’s acting adds to our sense of her character’s unease, her feeling of not belonging. By contrast, Sidney Berger is simply atrocious as John Linden, the lech who keeps pestering Mary with killer lines like, “you’re gonna need me in the evening, you just don’t know it yet”, though you could say that even this increases the off kilter atmosphere, even if of course the effect in this case was clearly unintentional. None of the men which Mary encounters are really worth her time, from Dr. Samuels who tries to assist her in her confusion but is too wrapped up in his own theories, to the Minister who sacks her for playing “profane” music in an extraordinary scene in which she goes into a trance and begins to play the unchurch-like music of the soundtrack rather than what she should be playing. And what an incredible soundtrack this is, Gene Moore’s organ score providing an extra layer of fatalistic angst with obvious religious linkings. The choice of shots, even they don’t always make sense, also helps, especially the many overhead ones, such as when we look down from on high at a tiny Mary sitting playing the organ.
Mary becomes obsessed with this old beach-side building that used to be a ballroom, sometimes revealed in mis-matching zooms. It’s a place where ghouls sometimes dance in an image which is one of several which take this film close to the decidedly art-house likes of Alan Resnais and Jean Cocteau, and an image which in its own weird way sums up the attraction of the dark and the dead and the frightening far more than us horror lovers could ever attempt to explain properly. Mary also starts to have periods where she can’t hear anything and is neither seen nor heard by others, as if she’s drifting in and out of existence. How so profoundly frightening this is, the idea of being surrounded by people that not only can’t help you but who don’t even know that you’re there! I love the horror genre, I wouldn’t be writing for this website if I didn’t, but I wish that more film-makers would attempt to broaden the ways with which one can scare – yet saying that, Carnival Of Souls has not only been mentioned by George Romero and David Lynch as a major influence [you can see it in so much of Lynch], but can also clearly be glimpsed in Tim Burton, James Wan and others. Why the hell did Harvey never make another feature? If you think about it, not that much really happens in his film, yet it has a mood which holds you and which no other film, to me, has quite been able to replicate. All we really have in terms of narrative is Mary getting more and more terrified, and we do too, despite any ghouls being realised by nothing more than pasty faces and the only special effect being some ripple dissolves. And then we are presented with one twist, followed very soon after by another. The second one, to be fair, is easily guessable, but seeing as it’s obviously foreshadowed throughout, I don’t think it was intended to be a big surprise, just the logical conclusion to everything that we’ve witnessed despite the curious spatial displacement that takes place.
Harvey has said that any intellectual aspects, aspects which I’m sure a lot of critics far better than me have gone into in detail about, were unintended; the film was just made to frighten and to make money. But films can have resonance and meaning which was subconscious or even unintended by their makers. Mary is quite obviously a person in some kind of purgatory. But for me personally, what’s more important is how lonely she is. We know nothing about her background except an early, random-sounding and hard to make out voice-over about marrying somebody. She’s a person who obviously finds socialising hard and has therefore lived much of her life alone. And now, and with her life pretty much wasted, she’s stuck between this world and the next. Hilligoss’s physical appearance adds to this; she’s certainly not ugly, far from it, yet she also has bone structure which almost seems to enable us to see the skull beneath the skin. Mary now desperately wants another chance at life, and with some kind of companionship this time, companionship being something she’s previously actively avoided. However, she still finds this hard and her quest doesn’t turn out too well. None of the people she encounters seem quite right. And in particular, there’s John. He wants to get laid and nothing more, she just wants a friend. It’s absolutely heartbreaking when she puts up with his aggressive attentions for a while just so she can have someone with her, even if she eventually finds his attentions to be too much. And the creepy image of The Man appears more and more frequently, sometimes even taking the form of other people [maybe he is these other people?], pulling her more and more to where she really belongs. While it still creeps the hell out of me even today, Carnival Of Souls, to me personally, is also a poetic examination of loneliness. It reminds us that we don’t properly have a life unless we interact and form bonds with others. Fortunately I changed. Poor Mary never did until it was too late.