Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
As B-movie horror such as The Blob reigned throughout the 1950s, the 1960s brought new changes to the genre. Cinema technology developed beyond clunky, giant movie studio cameras. Soon, 16mm mobile cameras were available at electronics stores for purchase by anyone. With this new tool, it opened up the possibility for anyone to potentially make a film.
In the early days of Hollywood, most major studios existed under the contract system. Actors would sign long-term contracts and unless they were allowed by the studio, they could not make films anywhere else. Movies would be written, produced, acted, and paid for in advance all under the roof of one studio. However, as cinema entered the 1960s, the system had begun to crack. Around 50% of full-length American features were being made by independent producers. The independent filmmaking revolution began its takeover.
Small independent producers started to make feature films that were then purchased by distributors for release in cinemas. This opened the door for low-budget features to be made that major studios never would have given the green light to. Since many of the people making these cheaply done films were outside of Hollywood, they were often unconventional and incredibly creative. One of the most enduring of these movies came out of the most unlikely of filming locations: the midwest.
Herk Harvey started out making industrial and educational films in Lawrence, Kansas. Other filmmakers like him, such as now-famed director Robert Altman, had begun to branch out and make successful low-budget features. Harvey decided to try his luck and raised a meager $33,000 to shoot the project, a ghoulish black-and-white horror film entitled Carnival of Souls. The director hired an unknown actress, Candace Hilligoss, to play a woman who is involved in an unsettling car accident and then finds herself drawn to the site of a creepy, abandoned carnival.
The film did not make much of an impact when it was released in drive-ins across the country in 1962; late-night airings on television throughout the 70s and 80s gained the movie a cult following. Although Carnival of Souls has very little special effects or gore, it’s an incredibly effective horror movie. Aided by a spectacularly spooky organ score, Harvey and the cast succeed at crafting a movie with one of the eeriest atmospheres ever seen on screen. Other cult filmmakers like David Lynch and George Romero have cited Carnival of Souls as a huge influence on their early work. When watching the strange, haunted visuals of the movie, it’s easy to see how Lynch’s Eraserhead or Romero’s Night of the Living Dead may not have existed without it.
Another enduring legacy of this now-cult classic is Carnival of Souls‘ unexpected ending. These days, twist endings from M. Night Shyamalan and the like are expected in horror, but at the time, it was truly surprising. The ending of the movie isn’t a huge, flashy revelation as they all seem to be in modern horror today; instead Carnival of Souls slowly builds to a brilliant scene revealing the true nature of the main character. As with any enduring cult classics, the movie remains an example of how affecting and imaginative low-budget features can be.
The crew for the film consisted of only director Herk Harvey and five other people.
Carnival of Souls was shot around Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah. Local actors were hired as most of the supporting cast for the three week film shoot.
The scene at the beginning of the movie where a car goes off a bridge was filmed in Lecompton, Kansas. The town of Lecompton did not charge Harvey for use of the bridge. Instead, they only asked that any rails damaged during filming were to be replaced. The entire scene cost $38 to replace a few of the damaged rails.
What’s your favorite scary movie? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.