(1962) Directed by Herk Harvey; Written by: John Clifford; Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger and Herk Harvey; Available on DVD.
“We used black and white film and we were naïve enough to hope for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of a Cocteau.” – Herk Harvey (excerpt from Criterion DVD commentary for Carnival of Souls)
“I didn’t so much invent the story and write it as much as I did write the story and see what I had invented.” – John Clifford (ibid)
Some movies enjoy a second life, long after they were originally written off. In the case of Carnival of Souls, not only did the film gradually gain hordes of ardent admirers after a limited (and disappointing) theatrical run, but it left an enduring legacy that continues to be felt in horror cinema today. Like a zombie rising from the grave, it took on a second life, establishing a new genre precedent for its convergence of low and high-art aesthetics.
After making numerous educational films for Centron Corp, director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford decided to try their hands at feature filmmaking. Both took time off from their regular duties to shoot the film, on a shoe-string budget of $30,000. Filming took place in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah, where the climax takes place. Harvey originally envisioned doing a series of films, but Carnival of Souls would prove to be his sole theatrical outing.
Due to the miniscule budget, Harvey and his tiny crew relied on existing locations for many scenes, including an early sequence in an organ testing room. In this case, the filming location determined the central character’s profession, as a church organist. The main attraction, however, is the eerie, abandoned Saltair resort, sitting on the edge of the Salt Lake in Utah. Once a prime destination for vacationers at the turn of the 20th century, the once grand tourist resort had gone to seed by the ‘50s. The derelict midway takes on an ethereal, otherworldly quality. The crumbling walls and creaky floorboards of an immense dance hall becomes a tomb, only fit for ghosts to inhabit.
Candace Hilligoss turns in a frustrating, enigmatic performance as the film’s nominal protagonist, Mary Henry. She’s the lone survivor of a disastrous road race, when the car she and her friends are occupying careens off a bridge and sinks in a river. She manages to pull herself out of the water, stunned but intact. Mary spends the rest of the film walking in a perpetual haze, as she lapses in and out of lucidity. After her near-death experience, she accepts a job in another town. Despite her skill, she doesn’t see her calling as a church organist, but instead comments “…a church is just a place of business.” She’s not out to re-invent herself as much as run away from her past, and continue to keep others at arms’ length. In one scene, she comments to a doctor, “I don’t belong in the world. Something separates me from other people.” Although her character is difficult to connect with as a viewer, many of us can identify with her feelings of isolation and alienation, exemplified by her frequent separations from reality. In a shot that evokes Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho, or Inger Stevens in the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker,” she drives into the night to an uncertain future. She’s a lost woman, haunted by a pallid apparition* only she can see. She’s inexplicably drawn to an old, moldering pavilion. She wanders the empty carnival grounds, at once looking for something she’s lost, but unable to make the vital connection. The filmmakers don’t supply many clues about her motivation – Is her dissociative state a result of trauma from her automobile accident or something else?
* In a decision based on “ego and economics,” Harvey played the ghostly man who relentlessly pursues Mary.
Audiences didn’t pay much attention during Carnival of Souls’ first go-round. It received a relatively limited release, mainly in the South, on a double bill with the Lon Chaney, Jr. flick The Devil’s Messenger. But thanks to nightmare-like imagery and an ambiguous story, it’s built a solid cult following over the years. Harvey and Clifford, by accident or design, created a horror film for the arthouse crowd, but were nevertheless amused by the numerous interpretations over the years. While the film doesn’t quite possess the same power to surprise modern audiences (anyone who’s ever seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie will likely see the ending coming a mile away), what remains is a grim portrait of a limbo world between the living and the dead (Although I must admit, spending purgatory in an old amusement park wouldn’t be so bad as long as the rides worked).
With all due respect to Carnival of Souls’ cult classic status, it’s a trifle underwhelming, perhaps more famous for the films it inspired (notably, the superior Night of the Living Dead) rather than the original product. It’s a creaky boat, hampered by an unsympathetic lead, unlikable supporting characters (especially Mary’s oafish neighbor, played by Sidney Berger) and a languid pace. But faults aside, it’s impossible to dismiss the film’s influence on the horror genre. The filmmakers did so much with so little, and it’s commendable that Harvey and company left so much purposefully vague. Compared to many other horror films from that era, or contemporary horror films for that matter, it was a bold step to retain an air of ambiguity throughout. Carnival of Souls boasts some impressive cinematography, memorable location scenes, and still possesses the power to creep us out.