Carnival of Souls (1962)

So, this film is a sort of Rorschach test as it is both quaintly absurd and deeply unsettling at the same time. The folks from Rifftrax have lampooned this film (for good reason), and The Criterion Collection has seen fit to include this film among the most important and influential in the world (for good reason). There isn’t much I can add here to what I originally posted at Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities, but I can say that if you consider yourself a horror hound but haven’t yet seen this film, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.


Originally posted January 16, 2018.

Summary: Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), the sole survivor of a car accident that killed her friends, relocates to a neighboring town to help her get a fresh start after the crash.  On the drive into her new hometown, she notices at the outskirts an abandoned carnival pavilion on the edge of a lake–and starts to see the apparition of a pale, wet man dressed in black (Herk Harvey) following her intermittently throughout her first week in her new location.  Is Mary going crazy, or are there other forces at work here?  Either way, one thing’s for certain: Hilarity ensues.

Thoughts: Anyone who is familiar with RiffTrax (Mike Nelson’s successor to Mystery Science Theater 3000) is likely familiar with this film–and though it takes a lot of heat for being cheesy, silly, and downright odd at times, damn it if it isn’t a well-constructed B-horror movie.  In fact, if one were willing to watch it closely and seriously, one could almost begin to understand why Criterion picked up distribution for this film in the first place.

One main reason why it is so well-constructed is that it was made by an industrial film company; that is, a company whose business it was to make instructional and safety films for various industries.  Herk Harvey, the director and an actor in the film himself, knew how to make the most of a small budget–and make the most, he did.  What he created in his sole feature film is a minimalist hybrid, half horror film and half art film, utilizing both guerilla filmmaking techniques and real buildings as set pieces (including a genuine abandoned carnival pavilion in Salt Lake City) to tell Mary’s story.

And that brings us to the cast.  Candace Hilligoss conveys Mary’s several dimensions well: cold and aloof, vulnerable and isolated, politely coquettish, and utterly terrified.  With her range, it’s puzzling to me that her filmography is filled with a whopping five roles.  Director Herk Harvey menaces the every scene he’s in without ever saying a word.  And Sidney Berger is amazing as John Linden, Mary’s sleazy, perverted, unapologetically-uneducated neighbor.  That role alone should have been the start of a great career as a character actor for Berger.

And I can’t forget the soundtrack.  Like everything else about the film, it is minimalist, as it is comprised almost primarily of organ music.  But that said, the score as created by Gene Moore lends an extra layer of foreboding to the already creepy atmosphere of the film.

Conclusion: When I watch this film today, I can’t understand why it didn’t do better at the box office when it was first released.  Some have commented Carnival of Souls was intended to have “the look of a Bergman and the feel a Cocteau,” with a heavy dose of German Expressionism tossed in for good measure–but I would add shades of Carl Theodor Dreyer to that description as well.  If you happen to like the works of David Lynch and George A. Romero, both of whom claim to have drawn inspiration from this film, set aside some time to watch this film.  This is doubly true if you happen to be a fan of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which seems to have drawn heavily from Herk Harvey’s visuals.

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