Carnival of Souls (1962)
Directed by Herk Harvey
Cast: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Herk Harvey.
1962 75 minutes
Rated: [NR] (equivalent of a PG or PG-13 for ghoulish images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 2, 1999.
Made in 1962 on a shoestring budget of only $15,000, Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls" is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but when considering its low-budget and amateur actors, it turned out about as good as could possibly be expected. The film is like a nightmarish puzzle, one that you think you've figured out, but really haven't until the final twist arrives in the last scene.
The film begins abruptly, as a carload of young women are challenged to a drag-race by some lead-footed male joyriders. While passing over a narrow bridge, the ladies' car accidentally loses control and plunges into a deep river. Hours later, as the police have arrived and are attempting to find the car in its dark watery grave, one of the passengers of the ill-fated accident, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), miraculously appears climbing out of the river. Not remembering anything about the accident, and looked upon by everyone as a miracle, Mary immediately moves to a small town in Utah to play as the church organist. She rents out a room from a kind, elderly landlady (Frances Feist), meets and is somewhat charmed by the other resident of the home, John Linden (Sidney Berger), and attempts to begin putting the pieces of her life back together. Everything is not perfect, however, as Mary begins to frequently see a ghoulish, frightening phantom figure everywhere she goes, even though no one else claims to see anything. Is it simply a hallucination, sparked from the trauma of the car crash? If that weren't enough, Mary also begins to sense a sort of mysterious connection to an adjacent, closed-down, desolate amusement park.
At a decidedly too-brisk 75-minute running time, "Carnival of Souls" moves at a gradual, dream-like pace that makes it almost impossible not get caught up in the proceedings. And although only with a miniscule budget, since its release, the film has quickly become a cult classic for all horror afficionados. Even George Romero has mentioned, in fact, that he got his idea for 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" from "Carnival of Souls," and it is obvious that so did David Lynch when he made "Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks," and "Lost Highway." That these filmmakers were influenced by such a "petty" movie from the early-'60s proves of the extraordinary power that the film ultimately holds, both in its storytelling techniques and glorious style.
Candace Hilligoss, an unknown who was cast in the lead role, contains just the right amounts of vulnerability and strong will to bring Mary to life as a sympathetic character. One of the major highlights of "Carnival of Souls" is the magnificently atmospheric, brooding black-and-white cinematography that paints the settings, including the unforgettable images of the somehow off-kilter amusement park, as major characters themselves. The sequences of Mary simply walking around the eerie park, which is out on the dock of a bay, are some of those rare moments in motion picture history that, once seen, will be forever ingrained in one's long-term memory.
The story goes that director Herk Harvey scratched together the money to make "Carnival of Souls," and has never made another film since. That's really too bad, since he obviously was a major filmmaking talent with a knack for haunting visuals and abstract, ahead-of-his-time storytelling. Ultimately, Harvey died in 1996, but left in his memory his one and only film, a movie that affected, as well as inspired, a generation of moviegoers who had never seen anything quite like what he had achieved.
Note: Viewing this motion picture right before its direct-to-video 1999 remake, I was appalled to see how much the '90s version trashed the memory of this classic. By complicating the story from its originally simple premise, the makers of the '99 edition simply made everything feel contrived, as well as frustrating and confusing. And, tellingly enough, the original "Carnival of Souls" is also infinitely more disturbing, even though it was made thirty-seven years ago. It's aged very well.
©1999 by Dustin Putman