Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls should be an unassuming picture. Made in 1962 on a $33,000 budget over the course of two weeks, the film was originally marketed as a B-movie. It turns out that it’s so much more than that – no disrespect to B-movies. Harvey, the former director of educational films for the Centron Corporation in Kansas, has created a virtual tone poem of a horror film.
Like many now-successful movies, Carnival of Souls gained traction when it was shown on late-night television. It now has cult status, perhaps in part to its nauseous, drug-like style, and it’s shown at midnight showings in small theatres on scary nights. It is a very different sort of horror movie, a deadly dagger to the core of today’s tone-deaf effects platforms and bloodbaths.
The gorgeous Candace Hilligoss stars as Mary Henry, a good ol’ girl. She is cruising around with friends when challenged to a race by a few good ol’ boys. The race ends in tragedy and the girls’ car nose-dives off a bridge. There appear to be no survivors, but suddenly Mary surfaces some time later. She appears to have no ill-effects and no memory, although she’s been hired to work as a church organist in Utah.
Upon arrival at the new digs in Salt Lake City, Mary becomes entranced by an abandoned carnival site. She’s also visited by The Man (Harvey), a ghastly figure that nobody else can see. Mary drifts in and out of trances. She rents a room from Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist). She endures the boorishness of simpleton John Linden (Sidney Berger). And she has no idea what’s going on.
Carnival of Souls offers no easy answers and undoubtedly requires multiple viewings just to hammer down exactly what’s going on. Even then, the scandalous final scenes incite a predicament of spiritual anarchy. Perhaps Mary’s passage is castigation for her divine indifference, for viewing playing organ as just a job and viewing the church as “a place of business.”
Hilligoss is an astounding talent, but she sadly vanished from view after Carnival of Souls. She studied acting in New York City and debuted in Pennsylvania summer stock. She even danced at the Copacabana before being cast by Harvey in this low budget horror movie. She brings the sort of high cheekbones and sneering aloofness that few actresses do, delivering a character of gravity and nerve.
Mary’s scorn for the church and her distaste of people in general evokes splendid complexity. Hilligoss plays it perfectly, producing just the right touch of terror without swerving into tacky scream queen territory. She plays the elusive cynic, bowling through city streets seeing things. She’s never afraid to voice her defiance, much to the disdain of the working class Linden.
Carnival of Souls is wonderfully shot, with its shoestring budget never a factor. With a screenplay by John Clifford (who provides some nice insights in this essay), Harvey went ahead with a project that could’ve turned ruinous. He never did top it, but this flick remains a spectacular specimen of what happens when imagination meets just the right touch of gloom.
This isn’t a typical ghost story, with creaks and croaks and bounding hobgoblins. It is, as mentioned, a sort of tone poem. This is maintained by Gene Moore’s caustic organ score and Maurice Prather’s camerawork, both of which deliver a suffocating feel that is always just a little off.
Carnival of Souls is a terrifically appealing picture. It is a horror movie of restraint, but the costs are no less upsetting than those of more explicit films. Harvey’s approach to mood and Hilligoss’ exquisitely evocative interpretation make for a devastating but charming motion picture that best viewed in the dark.