Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival of Souls is full of creepy, atmospheric goodness – just right for a Halloween movie fest….
Given that it’s Halloween, time to take note of a cult classic that in its atmospheric creepiness ranks as high as Romero’s original Zombie classic or anything dreamed up by David Lynch, Brian de Palma, or any of the other more recent masters of what Count Floyd would call “scary stuff.” In fact, this is a film that both Lynch and Romero have cited repeatedly as influential on their work.
The film is Carnival of Souls, and it was made by a highly successful industrial/educational film director. Harold “Herk”Harvey spent most of his career making films for Lawrence, Kansas, based Centron Films (later subsumed under Coronet Films, an even more well known ed/industry film company) with titles such as Health: Your Posture, Shake Hands With Danger, and Manners in Public. On the road driving back to Kansas after having worked on a film in California, he passed an abandoned amusement park outside Salt Lake City that creeped him out – and which inspired Carnival of Souls.
The film concerns a young woman who is involved in a horrific car accident (the car she’s riding in plunges off a bridge into a swollen river). As rescuers are dragging the river trying to recover the car, she emerges from the water, having somehow survived the catastrophe. Perhaps.
That is one of the charms of Carnival of Souls. The sense of dislocation that character Mary Henry feels becomes the dislocation that the audience feels. This dislocation is emphasized by various techniques that Harvey uses: a musical score that alternates between the sort of chirpy sound track of an educational film and the overwrought organ music of a soap opera of the period. The acting (Mary is played by Candace Hilligoss, the only professional actor in the cast) varies wildly with Hilligoss bouncing off the amateurs among whom she finds herself. At times it plays like a hayseed neo-realist film; other moments have the wildness of something out of early Godard or Truffaut. More than occasionally one is reminded of one of Harvey’s more typical efforts: an industrial film.
All this works together somehow. The growing sense of dislocation the viewer feels mirrors the growing sense of dislocation Mary Henry feels as it becomes clearer and clearer to her that perhaps what she thinks of as “the rest of her life” is not that at all but something else, something sinister, something horrifying.
Those who know their film history will enjoy Carnival of Souls for its clearly influential techniques. Those who simply love movies that scare with atmosphere (like the works of the brilliant Val Lewton) will appreciate Harvey’s ability to turn limitations such as a low budget and amateur acting into assets in a psychological horror classic.
The film is in the public domain and readily available for viewing with a few clicks of the mouse or taps on a screen. Or you can just watch it right here: