Synopsis: Take a ride with young church organist Mary Henry as she encounters a world where the difference between the living and the dead is impossible to discern. Each step plunges her deeper into the nightmare of the Carnival Of Souls. Herk Harvey’s 1962 classic cult horror movie was the precursor to such eerie films as The Shining and The Sixth Sense. For pure skin-crawling spookiness, Carnival Of Souls is in a class by itself.
eyelights: the amusement park setting. the growing sense of paranoia. the dead’s makeup.
eyesores: the amateur performances. the poor editing.
“It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.”
I discovered ‘Carnival of Souls’ when I once went through all of Criterion’s collection for DVDs that might be worth seeking out. I had never thought of Criterion as being a publisher of horror films, having known them more for their international cinema and art-house stuff, so I wondered about this one when I saw it. I didn’t pick it up right away, but it stayed with me.
One day, I found ‘Circus of Horrors’ at the library. I got confused and thought that they were one and the same. Eager to see what the big deal was, I lined this one up for “immediate” viewing. I even recommended it to a friend who was in the mood to watch a horror film one night. She came over and fell asleep on my couch, while I stared at the screen in puzzlement.
This was a classic? It deserves the Criterion treatment?
Obviously I was mistaken. I soon realized my mistake, and having apologized to my friend for the snoozefest, made a point of keeping an eye out for the Criterion DVD. I never did stumble upon it, but I found a different version recently, at my favourite second-hand shop, which features an audio commentary by none other than Mike Nelson of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ fame.
Having watched ‘Night of the Living Dead‘, ‘The House On Haunted Hill’ and even ‘Reefer Madness’ with Mike Nelson’s hilarious commentaries overtop, I couldn’t imagine anything better than finally getting my hands on ‘Carnival of Souls’ – even if the edition is bare compared to the Criterion one, even if the film stinks, I was positive that there would be at least one saving grace.
But I needn’t have worried: it turns out that ‘Carnival of Souls’ is a pretty decent entry in the psychological horror genre – for an über-low budget film, that is.
Filmed in two or three weeks and with a budget of $17,000 (or 33,000$, depending on the claim), ‘Carnival of Souls’ is the only feature-length picture that Herk Harvey, director and producer of hundreds of educational shorts, ever made. He was inspired while driving by the Saltair amusement park from a gig in California. He came up with the story and John Clifford wrote the script.
It wasn’t a success in its day, but it was given new life on late-night TV, where it eventually garnered a cult following. A movie that focuses on mood over cheap scares, violence and gore, it was the perfect fodder for American television, which was once notorious for its white-washed entertainment. It has also been released on home video by various companies, making it ever more accessible.
‘Carnival of Souls’ is a simple film. It revolves around Mary Henry, the only survivor of a tragic car accident. Traumatized by the incident, having lost her friends, she decides to leave town to start anew and takes up a job as a Church organist in Utah. Unfortunately, she begins to be haunted by a ghoulish man, who appears to her at seemingly random moments.
Is he real or is he a figment of her imagination? And what about the moments when the people around her become completely unable to see or hear her, when she is unable to interact with them? What is happening to her in those moments? And how can she prevent these spells from taking place? Is it pure hysteria, or is something else going on?
Whatever the case may be, Mary’s journey into terror is only just beginning, as she becomes incapable of escaping this stalking apparition or controlling these crises. On the edge, nearing a breakdown, with her new life rapidly unraveling before her, she must either find a way to solve these mysteries, lest she completely lose her grip on life and sanity.
There are a few elements that I really enjoy in this picture:
- I loved the ghoulish man (played by Harvey himself) and the other ghouls; they have simplistic look, but it’s a terrific mix of the carnivalesque and sinister at once. I have no doubt that they have influenced many a Gothic creation with their white faces and dark, deep set eyes.
- I also love the setting of the amusement park. I’m not sure what it is about it, but it has a magical and eerie feel to it. Deserted as it is, there’s a sense that anything could happen. And it does. I simply adored the slightly surrealistic party sequences – which would have been fleshed out if not for a technical disaster that destroyed some irreplaceable footage.
- I love the conceit and the surrealist nature of the picture, how it leaves us hanging, not explaining exactly what’s going on but suggesting enough that we are intrigued to find out what will come next. There’s a growing feeling of unease and foreboding, which pays off as the film careens to its conclusion.
But let’s be real for a moment: ‘Carnival of Souls’ is not a perfect motion picture. Hardly. Hampered by a ridiculously low budget, and even facing technical difficulties (crucial footage was overexposed by the lab and couldn’t be used) it was cobbled together as best as these filmmakers could – so it is absolutely rife with all sorts of problems, not least of which is the amateur cast.
Led by Candace Hilligoss as Mary, the film is frequently bogged down by some of the most lifeless and/or ineffective performances in recent memory. But one would be loath to criticize non-actors who were likely culled from the ranks of friends and family: these people likely never had any aspirations of being actor and were probably just doing the filmmakers a favour by showing up.
Hilligoss was a trained actress, however, and it shows in her performance, for good or bad: whatever training she received is dialed up to a degree that defies belief. She tries to affect the proper emotions and body language, but she’s far too theatrical to make it look realistic. Having said this, she’s not screamingly bad or unwatchable: surrounded by such ineptitude, she comes off (relatively) okay.
The same could be said for the script. It’s not genius: the dialogues and speeches are frequently leaden and the cleverness or wit is utterly contrived, but it still paces itself in such a way that it sets the right tone. It also provides enough characterization for us to understand everyone’s motives, and enough perspective for the eventual reveal to make some sort of sense.
But really, what matters most is the mood of the piece, the growing sense of paranoia that it builds up from the moment that Mary leaves town. For all the film’s limitations, Herk Harvey and John Clifford were able to fashion a pretty decent psychological thriller, showing us both sides of the equation but providing answers only at the tail end – and even then, leaving us with an unsolved mystery.
With a greater budget and access to better resources, I have no doubt that ‘Carnival of Souls’ could have been a significantly superior motion picture. Ed Wood is infamous for making extremely low budget pictures, but the difference here is that there is some understanding of basic film structure and there are signs of skill.
It’s no Ed Wood film but, as it stands, ‘Carnival of Souls’ feels like a prototype, much like what a demo recording is to a fully-produced song: sketchy, imperfect, but a blueprint. But what a prototype! I was caught by surprise by how much potential this cheapie has. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, but it is crafty in its own way.
I will no doubt grab hold of the Criterion disc and explore this film at greater length. There was more to it than I ever imagined. (For the record, my rating has been slightly adjusted to reflect the dramatic impediments that the filmmakers faced in making this picture – those who can’t see beyond the film’s limitations should knock a good 3 points off of it)
Post scriptum: as for Mike Nelson’s commentary… it’s f-ing brilliant, as always! It’s spare compared to MST3K, but I still laughed my head off!
Date of viewing: October 29, 2013