It seems both film scholars who make up the Criterion company and the founders of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are fond of Harvey’s film, though for wildly different reasons.
How can one film be so divisive?
Of course, most films inspire contrasting opinions on some level, though few can be argued as either a cinema treasure or an outright turkey the way “Carnival of Souls” is. To examine the 1962 film itself, it’s easy to overlook how spellbinding it is, how subtle its brilliance as an expression of cinema and how rich it is in subtext.
An easy, quick means of experiencing the film the right way -- simply watch it at night, with all the lights turned out. It’s the way the film was meant to be viewed and, when experienced that way, it demonstrates a uniquely creepy vision of American dread, guilt and time lost.
Candace Hilligoss stars as Mary, an organist who survives a car wreck in the first scene; a game of chicken between two racing autos results in the driver of Mary’s car losing control and the vehicle crashing off a bridge into a river.
A haunting image of Mary emerging from the wreck, covered in mud, sets the plot in motion. We know nothing of Mary or her life before the accident. What is obvious is that she’s emotionally aloof, cold and, as a few characters note, seemingly devoid of soul.
As Mary takes on an assignment to play a church organ elsewhere, her cross-country drive is frequently interrupted by a white-faced ghoul, who randomly appears wherever she goes.
“Carnival of Souls” is a supernatural horror film, though the timing of its release illustrates how remarkable its appearance was in the independent film scene. Harvey, a director of industrial films from Lawrence, Kansas, made the film on a small budget in only three weeks.
With its eerie organ score, stark black and white photography and cast of novice actors, its reputation as a do-it-yourself debut film (in fact, the only one Harvey ever made) is evident from start to finish.
There’s nothing slick about it, as it has a scrappy, rough charm to its imperfections. Where it sometimes suffers in pacing (particularly in the latter half) or performances that aren’t fully formed, it excels greatly in its dream-like feel, rich atmosphere and especially, its alarmingly intelligent, ahead-of-its-time editing.
The latter features a number of jump-cuts that move the narrative quickly from one scene/location to the next. For a work so clearly a low budget labor of love, there is a thoughtful design to its storytelling and means of inducing chills.
FAST FACT: “Carnival of Souls” enjoyed a brief theatrical release in 1962, but it took until 1989 before the film hit Big Apple theaters.
The film resembles, in the best way possible, an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The hypnotic shots of Mary driving to Salt Lake City Utah also suggest Harvey had seen “Psycho” and knew how to photograph a blonde protagonist in an arresting manner while driving.
Arriving two years after “Psycho” and released during the third season of “The Twilight Zone,” Harvey’s film looks and feels like a companion piece to George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” which arrived six years later.
In terms of story, Harvey’s film is nothing like Romero’s.
Still, as a micro-budgeted expression of ’60s unease and a changing social climate, the two movies share an outlook and a celebrated production of low budget ingenuity and craftsmanship.
Everyone from David Lynch and M. Night Shyamalan has been influenced by Harvey’s film, which concludes on a twist most will predict early. Yet, the quiet sadness of that final shot still maintains its power.
Using the abandoned Saltair amusement park in Salt Lake City as both his influence and the film’s key setting (Mary is driven to visit this isolated location, which is seemingly calling to her), Harvey builds his nightmare to an existential level.
As Mary walks around an empty lot full of dusty carnival rides, the film notes how time alters the shape of the structures that hold our memories. Of course, since so much of the settings in “Carnival of Souls” are now torn down, we’re getting the extra kick of witnessing landscapes that are as ghostly as the figures that haunt Mary.
Made by industrial filmmakers on a small budget, the macabre masterpiece CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962), directed by Herk Harvey, was intended to have “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau”—and, with its strikingly used locations and spooky organ score, it succeeds. pic.twitter.com/ie3dYnx3uV
— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) October 15, 2019
The film has been interpreted in many ways, as the simplicity of the presentation (it has a few stylish bits but isn’t pretentious in the slightest) allows for multiple meanings. Is the film an extension of Mary’s fear of intimacy, sexual or otherwise? Is it intended as a travelogue in which the ghosts of the past follow us while we drive through abandoned towns?
Does the film represent, perhaps in an unintentional way, the changing social climate ahead?
I prefer to see the film as a commentary on Mary’s initial lack of faith, as her attitude towards playing a church organ and being in the presence of religious leaders seems defiantly secular; over the course of the film, her belief in the supernatural grows stronger, though it comes through fear and paranoia and not the comfort of faith.
If Mary’s journey is about seeing the truth while in a state of limbo, we, in turn, are seeing a haunted figure that is gradually consumed by the elements around her. There is a somber quality to the final moments, reminding me of O. Henry as much as Rod Serling (I suspect Harvey also read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”).
CARNIVAL OF SOULS -- Premiered in its hometown of Lawrence, Kansas this day in 1962 -- Japanese release poster pic.twitter.com/qL6T6KQdmE
— Hill Illustration (@charliehillart6) September 26, 2019
Hilligoss may not be a seasoned actress, but her close-ups are remarkable and she evokes a detached state of being in a compelling manner. She’s clearly a gorgeous woman but, because we only see her smile once, her face becomes a collection of reactions to frightening scenarios and a map of inquisitive expressions.
Her co-stars are effective in their way, though it’s Harvey himself, playing the ghoul who stalks Mary, who leaves the greatest impression by simply creating an unceasing and quease-inducing presence. A number of his sudden appearances are jolting.
While its special effects may be creakier than your average neighborhood Halloween haunted house, “Carnival of Souls” is unquestionably influential and, in its unique way, a weird, hypnotic work of fear and beauty.
It’s a harbinger of the developing independent horror movie scene, in which Harvey and Romero would be joined by let’s-put-this-thing-together mavericks like John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, and Wes Craven.
The late 20th century was flush with real world horrors and works like “Carnival of Souls” ably commented on the ills of society and found the means of wrestling with the collective terror we lived through by making art with little funds and ample imagination.
Harvey may have only a single film to call his own but he gave us this one, and it’s a masterpiece.