Throwback Thursday: CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

Still from CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

Shot in black-and-white for the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, this surrealistic, low-budget, independently produced horror movie became a cult classic decades later through repeated late-night showings on television. Its director, Herk Harvey, an experienced and award-winning industrial filmmaker, came up with the basic concept for the story while driving past an abandoned lakeside pavilion in Utah — the one that figures prominently in the film — on a business trip. Imagining the danse macabre at the film’s close, he convinced co-worker John Clifford to write a screenplay based on it. The result was Carnival of Souls (1962), Harvey’s first and only completed narrative fiction feature. Although consigned to relative obscurity for many years, this movie is now recognized as a genre antecedent and a stylistic precursor for well-known, unconventional films like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

The only professional actor in the film, Candace Hilligloss, plays the film’s protagonist, Mary Henry. A young woman living in a Kansas town, Mary and two female friends apparently drown when the auto in which they’re riding crashes off a bridge into a river during a drag race. Several hours later, after a fruitless effort to drag the river for the car and its occupants, rescue workers and bystanders are amazed when they spot Mary climbing onto a sandbar near the bridge. She’s muddy and speechless, but clearly alive.

A week later, Mary leaves town abruptly for a job as a church organist in Utah. We learn that she’s just graduated from college with a music degree. Travelling alone in her car all day, she passes an abandoned pavilion structure located on the outskirts of her destination as evening falls. Suddenly she’s startled by the sudden apparition of a ghoulish man’s face in the passenger-side window. This same man then appears in the middle of the road, causing Mary to swerve onto the shoulder to avoid hitting him. When she looks again, there’s nobody there.

Still from CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

This Twilight Zone-like figure, played by Harvey and referred to in the credits only as “The Man,” continues to appear to Mary — with ominously increasing frequency — for the remainder of the film. The story becomes increasingly surreal despite Mary’s efforts to start a ‘normal’ life in Salt Lake City. Mary is a self-described “realist” whose rationality prevents her from realizing her true condition until it’s forced upon her. While she makes great efforts to escape “The Man,” she’s unable to resist the pull of the abandoned pavilion, which she visits three times to try to understand her attraction to it. While several critics and scholars have interpreted Mary’s story as a dream, its surrealistic nature suggests instead a “super-reality” made up of both fantasy and aspects of the so-called ‘real world.’ While Mary would like to exist in the latter, she no longer belongs in it. The reason why is revealed in the story’s ‘surprise’ ending (which won’t be a shock to seasoned horror fans).

Besides the intermittent appearance of “The Man,” whose makeup, facial expressions, and body movements mark him as a ghoul, not unlike those of Romero’s classic first zombie picture, there are other surrealistic features of Mary’s experience. One of the most prominent is Mary’s unusual spells. In these two episodes, she cannot hear any sounds from the environment around her, while other people cannot see or hear her. Here the effect is proto-Lynchian: Mary is neither alive nor dead but in an in-between state of super-reality.

The film’s musical score supports the film’s surrealistic feel. While organ music might seem to be a ‘hokey’ or at least obviously ‘retro’ choice, it fits this film well. One reason is that Mary is an organist who plays her instrument in several sequences of the film. Thus, the film’s music is sometimes diegetic, but at other times is non-diegetic. In other words, it crosses the boundary between the sounds of the movie’s world and the world of the audience watching the film.

It’s easy to fault the acting in this film as well as its low-budget production values. Yet it also includes some well-done cinematography, including shots that were innovative at the time. For example, the sequences shot in Mary’s car during her trip from Kansas to Utah were captured with a handheld, battery-powered Arriflex camera, a type previously used only to shoot newsreel footage. Thus, Harvey was able to capture these sequences in a moving car instead of on a soundstage in a stationary vehicle mock-up. Out of necessity, the shot of “The Man” apparently approaching the car from the outside of its passenger-side window (as shown above) was created with mirrors that projected his image on the inside of the window.

This film is a must-see for serious fans of horror movies, as well as those who value the type of experimental filmmaking that independent filmmaking seems to foster under the right conditions. I gave it four out of five stars on Letterboxd.

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