-Written by Greg B
Two cars pull up side by side on a road. A young likely lad leans out of the passenger side window and signals to three young girls in the opposite vehicle. ‘Do you wanna drag?’ he asks with a cheeky smile. ‘Sure’, the girl replies with an eager grin. And with that, the two cars tear off, zooming around a tight corner and recklessly ignoring the fact that the road they’re racing on isn’t even completely constructed. The camera intercuts the race with shots of a tense blonde girl biting her lip, hoping that this insanity will soon be over. Once the cars pile onto a rickety bridge, we realize that the blonde girls anxiety was warranted as the car that contains her and her buddies veers through the barrier and plunges into the dark water below. This is where Carnival of Souls truly begins. From here we cut to a rescue scene, complete with concerned rubberneckers and antsy police officers. Surely no one could have survived that crash? A crowd runs to the bridge as a soaked and muddy figure emerges from the murky river. It’s the blonde girl, seemingly she survived.
But Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is strangely despondant even after surviving a near fatal car crash, and who exactly is that grotesque, pasty-faced ceaser the somnambulist- alike who keeps popping up at the most in-opportune of times? After the accident, Mary seems to start drifting into waking dreams where no one can see or hear her. However, she always ends up crashing back to reality. Her vivid daydreams not only end up costing her her first post-crash job (playing the pipe organ in a Utah church), but they get her thrown out of the bedsit she was staying in and lead a doctor to brand her as a hysteric. But just who is the man following her and why cant she seem to connect to any other human, not even the skeezy but good natured warehouse worker who attempts to try his boozy charm on Mary on a regular basis?
Carnival of Souls doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, but this isn’t necessarily a problem, for what it lacks in dramatic tension, it more than makes up for in escalating dread and hypnotic atmosphere. The film has been signposted as a landmark in psychological horror and rightfully so. Mary remains in a spellbound stupor for much of the film, but Hilligoss’s performance keeps you enchanted. She plays Mary with an etheral beauty, but when the white man appears she punctuates this dreaminess with a terrified mania. It must have been an incredibly tough gig for the former Copacabana dancer.
Herk Harvey, a director and former actor with an industrial and educational production company put this film together for the measly sum of 17,000 bucks (raised over a single weekend) and shot it in three weeks with a crew consisting of five people. This is simply an astounding achievement. While there have been classic films that were shot in shorter spaces of time (Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood was shot over a fucking weekend, the first assistant director must have had a nervous breakdown), Carnival of Souls is so beautifully photographed and staged that it feels like every setup was handled with the utmost of tender loving care (whereas during the production of Eraserhead, a film that is often cited as taking Carnival of Souls as a stylistic influence, some setups were said to have taken all night to light and frame. That film ended up taking seven years to make…).
I’m not going to ponder on how the twist ending has become a total filmic cliché, nor will I ruin it for those of you who havent already seen this dazzling, oddity of a movie. Carnival of Souls is a film that once seen, is not soon forgotten. The film has some genuinely chilling set pieces (and lets not forget this flick had a smaller budget than Bloodfeast for crying out loud!). Maurice Prathers cinematography is simply mesmerizing (and an obvious influence for Frederick Elmes’s subsequent work on the stunning Eraserhead) and Gene Moore’s ghostly organ score complements the stark monochrome visuals perfectly. Several scenes of this film actually gave me the shivers and made my hair stand on end. It truly is a shame that Harvey returned to directing industrials and social education movies with titles like Pork: The Meal with the Squeal and Signals: Read ‘em or Weep. Romero has admitted that the pasty faced ghoul and his pallid chums were a direct influence on the design of his undead hoards while the extreme low key lighting, abandoned urban environments and the foreboding sound design of howling wind has clearly influenced everything from Lynch to Adrian Lyne’s Jacobs Ladder to the Nine Inch Nails Video for the track ‘we’re in this together now’ (not to mention the pointless remake that reared its ugly head in 1998). This movie is a real gem and I can’t wait to watch it again.