Carnival of Souls, 1962
directed by Herk Harvey
starring Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Stan Levitt
Herk Harvey’s 1962 Carnival of Souls is both a fantastic, atmospheric movie and an example of excellent low-budget filmmaking that deserves its status as a horror classic. Shot in just three weeks with a cast that overwhelmingly went on to do nothing in the film industry again, Carnival of Souls relies on a story that has many layers to it, but also benefits from the beauty of simplicity and the fact that what isn’t shown or explained can be quite scary. The movie focuses on Mary, played fantastically by Candace Hilligoss, who somehow crawls out of a river after the car she was with two friends plummeted off a bridge and into a river. Claiming complete memory loss with an aloof, shellshocked attitude, she decides to almost ignore the event and move on with her life, continuing with her move to play organ at a church just off the Great Salt Lake in Utah. On the way, and continuously from her arrival, she begins to see abrupt visions of a man around her. Mary is for the most part completely lost as to what is happening but feels an abandoned pavilion, once host to a carnival, may hold some answers.
The character of Mary is probably one of my personal favorites ever in film. Hilligoss portrays her perfectly. She is very quiet and mysterious, but often has mood swings and seems to feel guilt in relying on anyone else for help. This is perfectly portrayed in two fantastic scenes in the movie in which Mary loses her ability to hear and communicate with anyone. The first of which features her in a department store selecting a dress. As she decides on her purchase and returns to her dressing room, the pinging signifying customers entering and exiting the story is constantly audible. But the video distorts, waves warping the image on screen, and then a deafening silence takes over. Mary wanders the department store but no one can hear her or will acknowledge her. She flees outside to the busy street where she still remains deaf and invisible to everyone around her. Completely lost, she continues to wander to a park where it is the sound of a bird chirping that breaks the silence.
It’s a rather significant scene in the movie because it really shows the disconnect that Mary is feeling with society, not only on a simple personal level, but on a compassionate level. Unable to even approach her feelings about the car crash she was involved in just days ago, Mary feels unfit for the world and unable to really connect with anyone. It’s a wonderfully done scene, as is the second instance of this where she is unable to purchase a bus ticket to get out of town due to the same phenomenon. Both times the film is shot with a many long shots deploying a lot of empty space around Mary, combined with the silence it intensifies the vast separation she is feeling from everyone else. Again, Hilligoss is perfect in this role that could have been so susceptible to over-acting and hackneyed, emotional pleas to the camera. Instead, she perfectly translates a character that is silent and mysterious to the viewer as well as one to be sympathetic for and curious about.
Despite the low-budget, Carnival of Souls is technically impressive and memorable. It has a ton of fancy editing cuts, making the film feel fast, stylish, and as modern as a 1962 movie can feel. While this is clearly a favorite movie of mine, I can still see the small hiccups throughout. The opening drag race scene features cars bumbling along at twenty miles an hour, some lines of dialogue are cut off by the editing, or just delivered horribly (“I just stopped to get a drink.”). But, these stutters are surrounded by a pretty amazing movie that builds an incredible atmosphere, supported by a great lead role, eerie organ music, great locations, and a few scares along the way. Everything leads up to a phenomenal finish that is ghoulishly psychedelic and features a great conclusion to the story. This is a movie, too, that clearly lent much influence to other great horror films. Night of the Living Dead clearly has a bit of Mary appearing in Barbara, Robert Blake’s character in Lost Highway seems a lot like the mysterious man here, and even more modern films such as The Sixth Sense and It Follows have reminiscent themes and styles in their storylines.
Well, I knew this would get long, but this really is a great movie. Often dismissed because of its age, or because it has been riffed on by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew (via RiffTrax), but if you can set aside a few clumsy moments that stemmed from a low-budget you’re left with an excellent eerie, atmospheric horror movie. It’s has a brilliant main character that takes the viewer through an intriguing story and is shot very well with a ton of great effects. I’d even say it’s still got a few good scares preserved in it. It’s one of my favorites and every time I see it there are layers I always feel I completely missed. It’s public domain, but do yourself a favor and get a good, crisp cut to really appreciate the movie and enjoy yourself.