Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, follows a young woman named Mary, whom we first meet when she and her friends take an unfortunate nosedive off the side of a bridge while drag racing. Mary is the only one to survive this awful event and being emotionally scarred, she tries to move on with her life afterward. She relocates to a different city, where she takes a new job as a church organist, but driving away from the horrific events does not seem to help as frightening apparitions as well as being drawn to an abandoned carnival, begin to plague Mary.
Considered by many to be a B-Movie classic, 1962’s Carnival of Souls is just that, a cheap horror film with classic sensibilities. Some of the editing is very poor, with cuts that are just plain awkward, the sound isn’t great, and neither are some of the film’s performances. However, low budget or not, Carnival of Souls has a classic feel in many ways with its incredible atmosphere, mood, and picturesque cinematography.
Overall, the film has a strong presence of dismay, which is almost projected from the character of Mary, whom suffers from macabre visions that cause her to question her own sanity. Even scenes that take place in the middle of the day have an uncomfortable feel to them, which may be helped by the black and white photography and the often-subdued score. Mary being an organist was a brilliant choice, as it gives the viewer scenes set in creepy churches with Grande organs (insert big dick joke here), that would add to the film’s already modern gothic feel. It also works as a way to have a genuinely creepy organ based score, which only adds to the movie’s fantastic atmosphere.
As I mentioned before, some of the performances are a little on the weak side, but the strongest and most important one comes from the very beautiful, Candace Hilligoss, who plays Mary. She is not amazing by any stretch, but she does a solid job and has a strong screen presence that drew me in to her and the character she portrayed. Mary is a character with a range of emotions, which must have been a hefty task for someone who was not really an actor, which is the case with Hilligoss.
There are many parallels to be taken from the character of Mary and some of her surroundings. After the accident, Mary becomes sort of a recluse, a character with much emptiness and possible guilt. Despite not being religious, Mary finds solace and peace in the church as she pounds away at the organ (insert sex joke here), but that is a very false sense of security as she is still plagued by… something. That something would be what draws her to the abandoned carnival, which is literally dead and soulless, contrasting Mary, who is figuratively dead and soulless inside.
While it may be titular, the carnival is rarely used, but when it is, it is used to great effect. It also has a lot of meaning and there could be the thought that the carnival being so empty is personified by the character of Mary. She is the carnival, while at the same time, the carnival is drawing her in, as it is a place for lost souls, which is what Mary is after all that she has been, and is, going through. It’s this comparison that drew me into the film most and mixed in with the proficient mood and tone of Carnival of Souls, makes it a classic in the truest sense. It moves slowly, but the patient eye will appreciate some of the thought put into the character of Mary, her surroundings, and how the two intertwine with one another.
While it might not be a must see film like Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, or Psycho, those are films that are necessary for any true fan of cinema. However, for a fan of horror, Carnival of Souls is a must for what it created with very little time and money. It is a tad slow, the twist ending is too easy to figure out, and while I enjoyed the scares, you can see them coming from a mile away. Nevertheless, Carnival of Souls succeeds, rising up out of the mediocrity caused by restrictions, to tell a tale that will give you goose bumps with it’s impending sense of doom and tightly crafted atmosphere, as well as something to ponder afterwards with the character of Mary.