Monday, January 11, 2010

Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls - Criterion Collection
She emerges from the murk of a swollen river, mud-streaked, her pale bony face like a skull, enormous eyes staring in confusion and shock.
Mary Henry (Candace Hilligloss) is surfacing from a car submerged after plunging off a bridge in a drag racing accident. Of the three women within, she is the only one to escape. So begins Carnival of Souls (1962), an understated, sometimes surreal film which manages to deliver real chills despite being shot in three weeks with a minuscule budget, a cast of mostly amateur and B-grade actors, and a director (Herk Harvey) whose ouevre otherwise consists of over 400 industrial and educational films ((Carnival of Souls is bracketed by Jamaica, Haiti, and the Lesser Antilles (1962) and Pork: The Meal with a Squeal (1963)). The score, by Gene Moore, is made up entirely of organ music, cold, sinister, and unrelenting. Candace Hilligloss is an excellent lead for a horror film ((she also starred in The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)), a woman who would be beautiful if she didn’t so closely resemble a mannequin with a wig, staring silently with wide lifeless eyes.
Mary Henry leaves town soon after the tragedy, strangely emotionless, perhaps traumatized by events. She drives to Utah to start a new life as a church organist, although without much religious fervor (“To me, a church is just a place of business.”). Here her troubles begin in earnest.
A strange and frightening (and perhaps dead) Man (Herk Harvey) haunts her, appearing and disappearing, his eyes burning into her soul. The enormous, abandoned carnival pavilion outside of town (“played” by the Saltair Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City, which has since burned and been rebuilt on a smaller scale), a hulking dark shadow on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, exerts a terrible fascination on her.
Her boarding house neighbor (Sidney Berger, who also had a part in 1998's Wes Craven Presents: Carnival of Souls, a film with a dissimilar plot and no redeeming characteristics) at first provides some distraction from her fears, but becomes disturbing in his over-persistent quest for her favors, and metamorphoses into a potential rapist with a drinking problem.
But this is nothing compared with the terror to come. The world changes, and she is temporarily cut off from humanity, unseen and unhearing, walking through the town in total silence, ignored by all (“It was as though for a time I didn’t exist!”). Has she been driven mad by her brush with death? Why does she feel so alone, so empty?
While sound and communication return, things continue to decay. The concerned Dr. Samuels (Stan Levitt) tries to sooth her nerves and diagnose her illness, but it is her idea to cure her problems by facing the carnival pavilion by the lake to which her attention is so strangely drawn, a spooky, desolate jumble of abandoned buildings and rides. Watching her walk through these empty spaces of shadow and silence is almost more terrifying than what is to come, full of palpable menace that brings to mind the oppressive, deserted hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining(1980).
The final ten minutes of the film begin as a descent into madness, an exercise in horror mounting excruciatingly. The final three minutes, unfortunately, detract from the overall atmosphere. There’s a silly supernatural hide-and-go-seek scene not in keeping with the brooding horror of the rest of the film, and finally an unnecessary bit of explanation to clue in those who failed to grasp the not-so-subtle plot points beforehand.
Despite these flaws, despite a very simple plot, despite generally mediocre dialogue and some off-putting flubs (Hilligloss’s hair appears suspiciously dry as she emerges from the river), Carnival of Souls somehow succeeds in frightening. This is not overt, go for the gross-out horror, but a well-crafted and quite creepy supernatural thriller to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
As an added bonus, it’s somehow encouraging that a group of low-grade actors and a director of educational films, on a tiny budget and a few weeks time, could produce something creepily enjoyable enough to become a cult classic. One can only imagine they had a lot of fun doing it, too. Herk Harvey certainly seems to be enjoying himself, in a macabre sort of way, smiling an evil little smile as he stares into the camera in his ghoulish pancake makeup, far, far away from the mundane concerns of Why Study Home Economics? (1955) and What About Prejudice? (1959).
Carnival of Souls is available as a free download from www.archive.org.

This review was originally published at the (now defunct) horror webzine Tales from the Moonlit Path.

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