Today’s cinema adventure: Carnival of Souls, a 1962 low-budget horror film that was more or less ignored on its release, but which has gone on to become a highly influential cult classic. Directed by Herk Harvey, a prolific lifelong creator of educational and industrial films who never made another theatrical feature, it was shot on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah, using a 16mm camera and reportedly with a budget of around $30,000- a cost which today would probably not even cover the price of the car that goes off a bridge in the first reel. Needless to say, it’s a film that relies solely on atmosphere and cinematic storytelling to provide its scares, and the fact that it does so very well is no doubt responsible for its importance in the history of the modern horror genre.
Despite its humble origins, the film’s screenplay, written by John Clifford from Harvey’s original story, is surprisingly sophisticated in its layering of thematic elements and even in the believability of its dialogue- considering the nature of its subject matter, that is. The plot concerns Mary Henry, a young woman who works as church organist though she has no particular interest in religious sentiment. A week before she is to begin employment in a new town, she becomes the only survivor of a car accident in which two of her friends are drowned. Determined to go on with her life, she makes the trip to start her job as planned, but she soon finds herself being stalked by a mysterious specter- who cannot be seen by anyone else- and inexplicably drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion on the shores of a local lake. Her strangely cold and detached behavior, coupled with her increasing hysteria and delusional episodes, begin to alienate her new friends and associates, and she finds she must confront the mysteries that haunt her in order to escape them. The story contains little action, per se; it mainly follows Mary as she attempts to start her new life. Nevertheless, the tension builds steadily throughout, shrouded in a dreamlike surreality and accompanied by a tangible sense of foreboding.
Much of the film’s unsettling mood has to do with the locations. Director Harvey supposedly got the idea for his movie while driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Though most of the rest of the movie was shot in Lawrence, where he was based, he paid the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce $50 for one week of filming at the ruined location; it was a good investment, because the scenes in this eerie, decrepit monument to cheap thrills long past can stand with some of the creepiest images ever put on film. It’s a marvelous symbolic element- a giant, decaying fun palace in the middle of a desolate wasteland, a haunted shell evoking the futility of the good times it once housed in the face of the eternal emptiness that surrounds it. To put it another way, it’s an apt reminder that, in the midst of life, we are in death, making it a perfect metaphor for the uneasy thematic core of the film.
The majority of Carnival of Souls, however, takes place in the kind of quiet, small town setting that can so easily serve to conjure thoughts of malicious forces lurking beneath the mundane familiarity of its surface- particularly when captured in the stark black-and-white palette of Maurice Prather’s cheap-but-effective cinematography. Sunlit parks or dark nighttime highways, a crowded nightclub or an empty church, a bus depot or a department store- no place feels quite right or completely safe. Even before the car accident in the opening scene, the lonely country roads seem threatening, and from the moment Mary emerges, dripping, from the watery scene of the crash, we spend the rest of the film waiting for the drop of another proverbial shoe.
It would not be fair, though, to place all the credit for this oppressive creepiness on the happenstance of starkly-photographed scenery. The film’s humble director was clearly a man with a vision, evidenced by the fact that he worked, without salary and with money he raised himself, to make Carnival of Souls in three weeks with a crew of five- including himself. Though there is definitely a clunkiness in his cinematic style, this has more to do with the limitations of his budget than with his understanding of the craft or his talent; the abrupt edits and the sloppy continuity are at least partly the consequence of a tight shooting schedule and insufficient funds. There is ample proof, throughout the film, of Harvey’s ability as a director; he frames his shots with an eye for arresting composition, and his instinct for pacing belies his lack of experience with narrative fiction. There are numerous moments when his use of clever camera trickery parallels that of directors like Hitchcock- whose work he no doubt studied- and the overall sense of inexorable menace, though enhanced by the settings and the visual style, is ultimately achieved by his cinematic rhythm- leisurely takes punctuated by short, sharp shocks at just the right moment- and his choices of what to show us and when to show it. To top it all off is his choice of musical accompaniment- an otherworldly organ score composed by Gene Moore, a natural extension of the heroine’s occupational duties which provides the perfect aura of fruity gothic gloom to the proceedings.
As for the actors, most of the roles are handled by local Lawrence “talent,” unprofessional actors acquainted with Harvey through his industrial work; admittedly, there are some embarrassing performances on display throughout the film, though Sidney Berger deserves a mention for his unexpectedly complex work as a loutish boarding-house neighbor who tries to woo the oddly disaffected heroine. A nod must also go to director Harvey himself, who makes a personal appearance onscreen as the ghoulish figure who plagues Mary, sporting pale makeup and leering malevolently- which may sound easy, but requires a certain finesse to pull off effectively, which he certainly does. Obviously, though, his movie hinges on the leading actress, and he shrewdly spent his casting budget there, hiring an unknown but highly-trained and experienced performer named Candace Hilligoss; strikingly beautiful and fully committed to her role, she carries the weight of the picture on her capable shoulders, convincingly playing a variety of far-fetched conceits and walking a thin line between ethereal detachment and frightened vulnerability. It would be overstating the case to say that she gives a great performance, but it’s a good one- certainly much better than the vast majority of would-be starlet turns in this sort of sub-B-grade horror movie.
That, of course, is exactly what Carnival of Souls is, despite the considerable praise it may have garnered over the 50 years since its inauspicious debut. It’s unquestionably the kind of lowbrow drive-in fodder that was churned out ad infinitum during its era- it’s just that Harvey’s enthusiasm and dedication make it several cuts above most of the others. To be sure, there is a level of artistry here that is hard to define; it’s not quite accurate to call the director a talented amateur, and the film’s stylistic strength is not accidental- he definitely knew what he was doing. Even so, the power of this strange little film may lie beyond the full scope of his intentions or abilities, and is perhaps rooted in the notion that lies at its heart, the one which ultimately provides its twist ending- predictable as it may be, in this day and age. Beneath its bogey-man thrills, it conjures a profound despair, perhaps the result of touching on some deep, unnamable dread, leaving a disturbing feeling that lingers long past its final frames. It is this quality, more than the diamond-in-the-rough technical prowess of its director, which has placed Carnival of Souls so highly in the esteem of modern horror enthusiasts and provided dark inspiration for later, greater filmmakers like George Romero, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino.
It probably goes without saying that by today’s standards, the fright factor of this film is very low; and by any standards, its production quality is ridiculously shoddy. The average modern viewer will probably find it laughable, the kind of movie that has gained its popularity from falling into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Certainly, a screening with a bunch of quick-witted friends would probably yield some pretty snarky zingers, and that’s a good enough reason to recommend it; but while you’re laughing, make sure you take a close enough look to admire the weird beauty that emanates from Carnival of Souls. However jaded you may be, there is something there that demands attention and commands respect.