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Photo: ‘Carnival of Souls’
‘Carnival of Souls’: No Money? No Problem!
The film we’re talking about today is remarkable for a few reasons, not the least of these being the fact that it was directed by someone who wasn’t really a director and produced by a film studio that wasn’t really a film studio. ‘Carnival of Souls’, released in 1962, is the only feature film directed by Herk Harvey, who would work somewhat prolifically on short films (mostly educational) in the 1950s — shorts with such captivating titles as ‘Manners in School’ and ‘Your Junior High Days.’ Harcourt Productions, the studio Harvey worked with, produced educational shorts and seemingly nothing else; it was one of those small-time studios that, if not for ‘Carnival of Souls’, would be completely forgotten today. Somehow, though, these people managed to produce a horror movie, on a budget of roughly $30,000 in 1962 money, and release it at a time when the film industry was overflowing with B-movies. Even more remarkably, ‘Carnival of Souls’ sticks out in an era when B-movie maestros Roger Corman and William Castle were putting out their most important work, and even now it retains a kind of magical aura about it that would land it in nothing less prestigious than the Criterion Collection.
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When Roger Ebert reviewed ‘Carnival of Souls’ more than a quarter-century after its release, he wrote, “It’s impossible to know whether this movie was seen by such directors as David Lynch or George Romero. But in the way it shows the horror beneath the surface of placid small-town life, it suggests ‘Blue Velvet’, and a shot of dead souls at an abandoned amusement park reminded me of the lurching undead in ‘[The] Night of the Living Dead.’” Indeed, rather than involving alien invaders or monsters from some murky corner of the globe, ‘Carnival of Souls’ is a ghost story, and it’s a pretty eerie one at that; it uses little in the way of special effects, and its focus on a single woman’s psychological struggle nearly renders it a chamber piece. I wouldn’t be surprised, frankly, if M. Night Shyamalan took inspiration for ‘The Sixth Sense’, a marginally more modern ghost story that almost certainly owes as much to ‘Carnival of Souls’ as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Don’t be fooled by its label as a B-movie: this is a certified classic of the horror genre, and we’re about to take a dive to see what makes Herk Harvey’s lone feature tick.
A Crash, a Survivor, a Haunted Woman
Normally with ghost stories, it’s some house or mansion that’s haunted, but in the case of ‘Carnival of Souls’, it’s a person who is haunted. The film opens immediately, and I do mean immediately (depending on the cut you’re watching), with two cars on the road: a woman named Mary and her gal pals meet up with some dudes, and they enter what should be a quick and easy drag race. The problem is that something goes wrong with the girls’ car, the bridge they’re racing on gives way, and they plummet into the river below, seemingly all of them killed in the landing.
However, miraculously, Mary survives, coming out of the water a good distance from the crash, dazed but otherwise appearing to be fine. No other survivors. In most movies, we would get a sequence of Mary grieving for her lost friends, questioning how she managed to survive the accident, and maybe consulting a therapist — but this is ‘Carnival of Souls’, a movie that is both quite weird and quite short (78 minutes), so we skip all that. After an ambiguous amount of time, Mary leaves town for some backward joint in Utah, where she applies for an organist position at a rundown church, despite not being religious herself. Something supernatural definitely exists in this movie’s world, as before long, Mary finds herself followed by a ghostly pale man (played by Harvey), and it only gets worse from there. At her new apartment, she has a fellow tenant, John, who acts creepier than any of the actual ghosts.
Candace Hilligoss’s performance as Mary has to be one of the best in any horror movie, no matter the budget. Hilligoss would only appear in a couple of other movies — another anomaly to add to the pile. Her quietly despondent turn probably strikes us as low-key now, but imagine how it would’ve come off 60 years ago when acting was generally more theatrical. Every interaction Mary has with a male character is either coldly ambivalent or outright hostile, and I’m not sure how deliberate a filmmaking decision this was; we have a woman being tormented by men, both alive and dead, and it doesn’t help that the crash which led to her trauma was caused by men as well. I’ve shown ‘Carnival of Souls’ to a couple of people in my time, not to mention reading contemporary reviews, and it still strikes me how accurately this film captures what it’s like to live with mental illness, on an allegorical level if not a literal one. There is not a single interaction Mary has with anyone that could be considered totally natural; she is always separated from other people by an invisible sheet of glass. While she does try to escape her tormentors, the living and later the supernatural, Mary remains a victim of psychological horrors — which, after all, do not reside in any tangible place.
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There is a scene early on where Mary meets with the minister of the church she’ll be working at, and the whole ordeal is uncomfortable — and why shouldn’t it be, she’s an irreligious woman playing in one of God’s houses. While she is able to keep the job, the minister cautions her about her distant attitude. “But, my dear,” he says, “you cannot live in isolation from the human race, you know.” It’s obvious, to the minister and to us, that Mary has been cut off from the rest of mankind — although, unbeknownst to the minister, this is in part because Mary now lives on the line between worlds, between the living and the dead. We would get many movies that tell ghost stories in the following years, some of them quite good, but you’ll have your work cut out for you if you try finding one as quiet and weirdly depressing as ‘Carnival of Souls.’
A Forgotten B-Movie Turned Cult Favorite
The early ‘60s saw a quantum leap in cinematic horror, with movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ injecting the genre with a strong dose of blood and eroticism which had been previously lacking, but ‘Carnival of Souls’ is perhaps more psychologically intense (and convincing) than either of its aforementioned contemporaries. The harsh lighting, simple but haunting organ-based soundtrack, and rudimentary production design would unquestionably anticipate a new generation of independently produced horror, which naturally would include Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead.’
Even after that wave of indie horror, though, few movies to this day look or sound like ‘Carnival of Souls’, a movie so minimalist in its presentation that even if one were to recreate it on an equally small budget today, the remake would probably still lack the paired-down rawness of the original. Still, such a successful movie being made on a budget this small really goes to show that you can do just about anything, so long as your workarounds are ingenious enough. Every October, I like to indulge in classic and forgotten horror movies like how a child would indulge in candy on Halloween night, and if you have any enthusiasm for the craft then you owe it to yourself to give ‘Carnival of Souls’ a chance — perhaps a rewatch too, while you’re at it.
‘Carnival of Souls’ is currently available to stream on HBO Max, Shudder, Tubi, and the Criterion Channel, among others. The copyright ran out a long time ago, so you can even watch ‘Carnival of Souls’ on YouTube, completely free if you feel like it.
By Brian Collins
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