Hailed as a low budget unintentional horror masterpiece, Carnival of Souls has become the standard for the late 50s, early 60s genre of American horror. Yet, conversely, it also seems to transcend the category entirely. Its deliberate pacing and unorthodox composition elements honestly seem more attuned to the sensibilities of contemporary, French new-wave cinema than its counterparts in American drive-in fare. Whether through its limited resources, or by conscious choice, Carnival of Souls ends up illustrating truth in the auteur’s axiom ‘less is more’.
In 1962, industrial film director Herk Harvey decided to make a horror film. He had previously made about 40 films for school and industry with such titles as: What About School Spirit? (1958), Caring for Your Toys (1954), Street Safety Is Your Problem (1952) and Your Junior High Days (1961). He enlisted the help of fellow Kansans John Clifford (screenplay) and Maurice Prather (cinematographer) to help him, and they recruited local talent to act in the film. The lead character, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), only appeared in one other film.
The film opens with Mary Henry involved in a drag race in rural Kansas that results in her car driving off of a bridge into a river. She manages to walk away from the accident, but afterwards is haunted by a ghoulish-looking man. She ends up getting a job as an organist at a church in Salt Lake City where the apparition still appears. She also feels compelled to visit an old, abandoned carnival.
The technical inadequacies add to the surreal, dream-like atmosphere of the film. It is in direct opposition to the Ed Wood ‘so bad it’s good’ school of camp cinema. This film knows its limitations and acts brilliantly with what is possible (rather than reaching beyond its scope). In other words, a director with more options might not choose to focus so effectively on the elements that were available to Harvey. Watch how he lights a Utah plain. He found sets that could be had for next-to-nothing. See how he creates a Midwestern Hades with simple lighting and make-up. The low-budget make-up is also very effective, giving the zombies a surreal, Three Penny Opera effect that complements the tone. He then takes advantage of (and perhaps encouraged) the stiffness of amateur actors, creating a stilted and distant reality.
He also utilises what I consider one of the most compelling effects in a movie: silence. Those scenes when the sound goes out are just brilliantly filmed, and producing that effect probably actually saved them money. I love the way there is only gentle organ music throughout, and then the sound of wind blowing under the pier, near the end of the film. The heavy, clunking footsteps that prevail on the soundtrack sound death-like, exaggerated and very, very unreal.
After making this film, Herk Harvey and John Clifford continued working for the same industrial film company as if nothing had happened. Over the years the movie started fading away from peoples’ memories until the advent of VHS tapes. The movie was a popular rental and low-budget television staple (particularly in Australia). It developed a cult following which prompted Candace Hilligoss to contact an ageing Herk Harvey to try and make a sequel or remake.
The 1998 remake is to be avoided. But if you’ve seen The Sixth Sense you’ll see that it also owes a debt to Carnival of Souls.
Director: Herk Harvey
Writer(s): John Clifford
Runtime: 78 minutes, 84 minutes (USA, director’s cut)
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.