Carnival of Souls is one of the great anomalies in film history. For many reasons, this movie should not have happened and even if it did get made the chances of it being seen by a mass audience and remembered for 50 plus years is some kind of miracle. Carnival of Souls was conceived by a filmmaker from Lawrence, Kansas, Herk Harvey, who had a miniscule budget and zero experience in anything outside of industrial films and educational film strips.
Had it not been for the inspiration that Herk Harvey took from independent film legend Robert Altman, simply Altman’s proximity in nearby Kansas City, Missouri, Herk Harvey might never have thought to make an independently funded feature film. Harvey attributed his decision to make a movie to the success Altman had garnered with his 1957 feature debut The Delinquents and his successful foray into documentary filmmaking all from his hometown of Kansas City.
On a fateful trip to and from California Harvey came up with the story that would become Carnival of Souls. The specific story inspiration came from seeing the dilapidated and shuttered Saltair Amusement Park in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the most pivotal and memorable scene of Carnival of Souls is set. Sadly, the place where that scene was filmed in 1962 burned down in 1968 but regardless, it was an inspiring sight, sitting empty and creepy in the midst of a barren salt flat. A perfectly inspired setting for a nightmare and one day iconic horror scene.
Carnival of Souls stars the utterly brilliant Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a teenager who nearly loses her life in a car accident that killed two of her friends. Mary somehow survived being submerged in a lake in a car that her friends could not escape from as easily. Mary almost immediately leaves town after the accident and accepts a position as an organist at a small town church. Along the way, Mary continues seeing the strange face of a seemingly disembodied soul who appears in windows and mirrors and haunts her dreams.
This creepy, white haired, pallid faced figure appears at random in Mary’s waking daydreams and in her nightmares, all of which lead her to believe she needs to travel to an empty pavillion in the Salt Flats where she hopes the answers to her nightmares may be. Is Mary going crazy from her visions or is she really being menaced by disembodied souls. Are they demons? Are they ghosts? What plans do they have for poor Mary?
Carnival of Souls is one of the great spine chilling creep fests ever made. Herk Harvey may have been an amateur when it came to feature filmmaking but his instinct for the job is natural. Perhaps his time in educational and industrial film was just the right training because his choices of when to hold on a shot, how long to hold and where to place the camera have a very basic quality but a quality that serves what the story needs.
I love the framing of scenes in Carnival of Souls, the lengthy takes, the patient build of each scene. And I especially love the black and white photography which, though it was in part a budgetary choice, plays perfectly into the dread atmosphere of Carnival of Souls. The face of the character only referred to as ‘The Man,’ and portrayed by Harvey himself in an uncredited performance, is made even more ghostly and effective by the lack of color.
Then, of course, there is the famous dance in the Saltair Pavilion and that remarkably creeptastic ending. Carnival of Souls reaches a filmmaking crescendo that even great filmmakers would envy. Watch the way Harvey uses a static camera shot to increase the tension as Mary disappears among the ghostly, demonic dancers. It’s clearly a dance of the dead with that stunning organ score that plays throughout the movie contributing to the dread atmosphere. These characters having been performing this deathly waltz forever and will forever more.
The gutsy choice to bring that scene back for an encore in the final moments of the movie is absolutely brilliant. The rising tension of Mary in this moment is remarkable and as she attempts her escape we can’t help but be filled with the same terror she feels. It’s hard to imagine that a young George Romero didn’t see Carnival of Souls and pull some influence for his eventual triumphant Living Dead franchise, Carnival of Souls has the same eerie dread that Night of the Living Dead delivered six years later in 1968.
We can thank low watt TV stations across the country, before the arrival of cable television for keeping Carnival of Souls alive for so long. The film was bought up by low budget TV stations for Saturday afternoon and late night filler fair and because of that a small but powerful cult formed around the movie. It was that cult that eventually brought Carnival of Souls to the midnight movie circuit of the 70’s and 80’s and eventually to the DVD generation.
Carnival of Souls is now forever apart of the Criterion Collection which assures that anyone in future generations will get to see this remarkable, ingenious and inspiringly low budget masterpiece. The Criterion Collection DVD of Carnival of Souls has been remastered and includes bonus features on how the film was made, information about the remarkable, one time feature director Herk Harvey and many other wonderful closer looks at this incredible movie.
It occurs to me that I have probably oversold Carnival of Souls based on my zealous love of this movie and the story of how it came to be made and how it perservered to become a classic. The reality is, you probably won't love this movie as much as me because that is probably not possible. Lower your expectations a little, watch for the fact that the film is gloriously creepy and you will at least enjoy yourself, if not fall completely in love with the movie as I clearly have.