A few years ago, I was buying VOD movies from RiffTrax and one of the ones that caught my eye was Carnival of Souls, a movie that I’d seen in several of those 100 movies for $20 bundles full of garbage and public domain stuff. (Night of the Living Dead and White Zombie always appear there as well.) I thought the commentary was sufficiently funny and the movie was weird and crappy enough to make it enjoyable. But I knew it had a high reputation; hell, it’s on Criterion even, an early release. After watching the new Blu-ray edition, I’m convinced it’s a masterpiece, despite what the RiffTrax guys say.
Directed by Herk Harvey and written by John Clifford, both veterans of the Lawrence, KS-based industrial film production company Centron Corporation, Carnival of Souls is a nightmarish, stark, near-experimental film that has been named as influences on the likes of David Lynch and George A. Romero. Made and released in 1962, it’s an oddity of a horror film, and not all the performances are very good, but it’s hugely effective if you allow the visuals and the constant organ music to overtake you.
The film opens with a car of young ladies having a street race against a couple of dudes in cars, with the girls’ car careening off a bridge in the process. While the authorities are unable to retrieve the car, one of the women–Mary (Candace Hilligoss)–emerges from the river, seemingly unharmed. She works as a church organist bust keeps mentioning that she’s a non-believer. Mary decides to move to a new town to get away from the memories of all her dead friends. On her way, she passes a large, abandoned carnival and suddenly sees the terrifying pale face of a ghostly man in a suit (director Herk Harvey himself), but she shakes it off and goes on her way.
After getting a room at a local boarding house, she gets a job at another church as an organist, and the pastor and her psychiatrist both try to make her deal with her losses. The boarding house only has one other tenant, and he’s a real skeevy dude (Sidney Berger) who consistently hits on her, disgustingly, eventually wearing her down enough that she does agree to go out with him. The problem is, she’s preternaturally drawn to the carnival, both in dreams and in hallucinations throughout the day, and slowly the world begins to close in around her. She constantly sees the ghostly man and several times, people in stores and on the street actively don’t acknowledge her. The climax comes with dozens of other ghostly people chasing her through the carnival, attempting to punish her for escaping death’s clutches.
This movie is bonkers, but it’s really very good. Hilligoss and Berger are strange but undeniably watchable screen presences and every time Harvey’s ghost man makes an appearance, it’s a frightening delight. The music is unsettling and constant organ music, to go along with the main character’s profession, and it apes everything from slinky saxophone music to calliope waltzes. It truly feels from another planet, and perfectly accompanies the dreamy way Mary floats through the world, or runs for her life, or simply can’t escape her past.
One really feels the movie is a precursor to Eraserhead and Night of the Living Dead, and it’s only 78 minutes so you don’t even have to spend all evening watching it. But the haunting images might just stay with you into your own nightmares.
The Blu-ray edition from Criterion looks really terrific, clean enough to make you forget its low-budget, public domain-video roots, and the sound especially has been cleaned up, allowing it to plunge right into your head (in a good way). The extras on the disc are very informative. There’s a 22-minute interview with comedian/writer/actor Dana Gould, a massive horror movie fan and a very knowledgeable sort about such things. Fascinating and enjoyable. Gould also reads an essay about the history of Centron Corporation and its industrial film work, many of which are included on the disc as well. There’s also a half-hour video essay by film critic David Cairns, much more sprightly and playful than most video essays.
On top of these, you also get a 1989 scene-specific commentary by Harvey and Clifford, a 1989 documentary about the cast and crew reunion, a 2000 update about the filming locations, deleted scenes and trailers. All in all, a packed release of a truly one of a kind and special horror gem. Pick this up immediately.
Images: Criterion Collection