Carnival of Souls is a dark and sinuous cinematic curiosity, and something even rarer than a great film: transcendent schlock.
A double-feature B-side upon its release in 1962, Carnival of Souls has since been feted at film festivals and art theaters. It has been pilloried by the Rifftrax crew, and consecrated by the Criterion Collection (which will release a new restoration on Blu-ray on July 12).
The film’s low-budget seams show in its strained script, poor sound, awkward editing, ballpark-organ score and performances so rigid that to call them “wooden” would be an insult to trees. Yet the film haunts the imagination, and its influence on the horror genre can be seen in the likes of Night of the Living Dead (which was released six years after an emboldened George Romero saw Carnival of Souls at a drive-in) and The Sixth Sense (for which M. Night Shyamalan borrowed Carnival of Souls’ very narrative soul).
The movie opens with a down-tempo drag race (The Slow and the Spurious?) on a country road that sends one car crashing through a bridge guardrail and plunging into the river below. The vehicle’s three occupants are presumed dead, but then one of them, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), emerges from the murky depths looking waterlogged but otherwise none the worse for wear.
Seeking to put the incident behind her, Mary accepts a position out of state as a church organist. As she nears her new hometown, she passes an abandoned building both opulent and ominous, and is confronted with sudden visions of a ghostly figure.
Mary finds herself drawn to the sinister structure, and on a visit with the priest of the church where she works, she asks him to break through the loose fencing marked “Keep Out” for a closer look (he refuses, of course; the men in the film are either scolds or sleazebags). Meanwhile, the apparition reappears with insinuating frequency, and Mary finds herself increasingly paranoid and disconnected from humanity.
The sole feature of director Herk Harvey, who had a long career producing educational and industrial films for the Lawrence, Kansas-based Centron Corporation, Carnival of Souls was sparked by Harvey’s own bewitchment with the deserted Saltair resort on the southern shores of the Great Salt Lake. According to writer and Centron colleague John Clifford in his introduction to the Criterion release, Harvey envisioned “creatures rising from the lagoon and doing a dance of death in this pavilion.”
Knowing they would have a miniscule budget (the film ultimately cost just over $30,000), Clifford and Harvey crafted a story around limited characters and, Clifford noted, “locations that would put atmosphere on the screen at little expense.” One such location was Saltair itself; another was the Reuter Organ Company, conveniently located in Lawrence, which supplied Clifford with the idea for Mary’s vocation, which in turn provided the character of Mary with intriguing facets.
Mary is not particularly likable. She cares little for religion and confesses that playing the organ in church is just a job. She is curt in conversation, and she engages with people only when she has to; it is observed by other characters that she is “distant” (or, more sexistly, “cold”). To what extent her behavior is the result of the accident or a progressive detachment with reality is unclear because only a glimpse of Mary is given prior to the fateful wreck. The effect of this unsympathetic, contradictory and potentially unreliable witness to her own world is deviously disorienting.
A cinephile who studied and worked in theater prior to joining Centron, Harvey with Carnival of Souls aspired for the “look of a Bergman” and the “feel of a Cocteau.” If the film doesn’t quite reach those lofty aspirations, it also doesn’t sink to Ed Wood-ian lows. With Carnival of Souls, Harvey created an enduring, dreamlike realm that drifts in the twilight zone between the drive-in and the art house.