by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Carnival of Souls, a 1962 independent production made by director and (uncredited) co-writer Herk Harvey, filmed in Lawrence, Kansas (where he raised the estimated $30,000 budget from local businesspeople) and at Saltair, an abandoned amusement park outside Salt Lake City, Utah that originally inspired the story (Harvey saw it and immediately conceived of the idea of making a film there, incorporating the place’s real backstory: it was originally built and marketed as a natural health spa in which people could take healing baths in the waters of the Great Salt Lake; then, as the waters receded and that was no longer possible, they built a fun house and other carnival-style attractions until the place’s remoteness from the major freeways cost them their customer base and ultimately drove them out of business). Harvey never got to direct a film again, even though Carnival of Souls — a box-office failure on theatrical release — acquired an audience on late-night TV showings in the 1960’s, then was rediscovered in 1989 and ballyhooed as a major “find,” and Harvey and his star, Candace Hilligoss, made public appearances to promote it.
Carnival of Souls begins on a back-country road in Kansas; Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is riding with two other women in a car when another car with males inside pulls up and challenges them to a drag. Usually a “drag” simply meant an acceleration contest on a straight-line course, but this “drag” actually goes over a considerable distance and involves the drivers making sharp turns and ultimately puts them on a bridge, where the driver of Mary’s car loses control and it crashes off the bridge. (Harvey had to pay the Kansas highways department $17 for the cost of repairing the bridge after it was damaged filming this scene.) The car sinks to the bottom of the river the bridge was built over and it appears as if everyone in it is going to drown and die, but Mary emerges from the water, standing straight up and walking towards the camera like Venus arising from the sea in the paintings based on the old myths. She materializes inside another car — presumably her own — and drives out to Salt Lake City, where she’s been promised a job as a church organist, and she stops along the way in another town so she can try out an organ similar to the one she’ll be playing for a living.
Along the way she’s beset by hallucinatory visions, mostly of a ghoulish-looking guy in white makeup (played by director Harvey himself) emerging from a brackish-looking body of water and sometimes dancing with other, similarly made up and attired (all in black, natch) figures. When she arrives in Salt Lake City she moves into a boarding house run by Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist) which has just one other lodger, John Linden (Sidney Berger), who’s desperate to get to know Mary for romantic and/or sexual purposes. The film alternates between relatively realistic scenes and long stretches of pure (or almost pure) abstraction, as Mary explores the ruined amusement park (which practically becomes a character in the film itself), sees the ghoul couples dancing as streamers hang from the ceiling and blow in the air currents, in one sequence is startled as a sliding mat comes down the fun house’s long slide without anybody on it (we hear the sound before we see its source — Val Lewton would have been proud!), and in general occupies a disquieting state between normal existence and total weirdness.
At one point Mary goes into her hallucinations while she’s in the church practicing on the organ, and the minister (Art Ellison) immediately decides she’s playing the devil’s music and fires her on the spot. In the next sequence she meets John for what turns out to be an utterly joyless date at a cheap restaurant/bar in which the jukebox plays the sort of big-band music to which a rock ’n’ roll backbeat was added in order to make it more salable in the early 1960’s. (This is a rare point in the movie in which we hear any sort of music on the soundtrack other than gloom-’n’-doom organ playing, a background score that absolutely fits the mood of the piece.) They go back to the boarding house and John invites himself into her room and tries to get her to have sex with him, and she rebuffs him and drives him out — which only convinces him that she’s weird. (Both Mary and John are played by actors who aren’t unattractive but aren’t drop-dead gorgeous either, making their awkwardness around sexual attractions, real or perceived, believable.) Then there’s a scene in which Mary takes her car into a local garage where the mechanic tells her it needs a transmission repair, and he puts it on the hydraulic lift — while she insists on remaining inside it as he works even though he warns her it’ll take hours. Then she falls out of the elevated car and goes for a walk through the streets, during which she tries to greet people and they totally ignore her, as if she isn’t there — a marvelous visual symbol of alienation not that different from Ingmar Bergman’s plunking his heroine, in The Silence, into a country where the only language is one she can’t understand. She also tries to get a bus going out of town — only the one that’s leaving immediately is full of the ghouls from the carnival.
The fact that an ultra-cheap horror movie from the early 1960’s, filmed mostly in low-contrast, rather grainy black-and-white (though even with the limitations of this lousy, cheap film, cinematographer Maurice Prather still gets some nice and appropriately unsettling visual effects), could evoke comparisons with Bergman as well with even earlier classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (especially in the scenes in which Mary talks to a doctor, played by Stan Levitt, who admits he’s not qualified as a psychiatrist but is trying to act as one anyway — and in one scene he’s replaced by the lead ghoul, though Harvey either accidentally or intentionally shot the scene in such a way that we know it’s the ghoul and it becomes, not a shock/horror scene, but a suspense scene in which the interest is in how Mary will react when she finds out) is a testament to Herk Harvey’s remarkable achievement in this movie.
What makes Carnival of Souls distinctive is it’s one of the few attempts to merge two distinct types of filmmaking, the abstract, underground, avant-garde film and the conventional narrative feature — about the only precedent I could think of was the interesting 1961 Canadian production The Mask (spoofed in the 1992 feature of the same title, with Jim Carrey), but that merely was a plainly photographed, tacky black-and-white horror cheapie with three stunning 3-D montage sequences by veteran Slavko Vorkapich spliced in at appropriate intervals. (The Mask was only partially in 3-D; the montages represented the hero’s hallucinations while wearing the mask, and just before each started a voice on the soundtrack said, “PUT THE MASK ON — NOW,” which was supposed to be a signal to the audience members to put on the 3-D glasses.) Carnival of Souls is a remarkable movie in which the avant-garde sequences and the conventional narrative mutually reinforce each other and create a stunning whole, and it’s so good a movie it seems utterly incomprehensible that this was the only time Herk Harvey got to direct — especially since Night of the Living Dead, made six years later on a similarly tiny budget and a far less interesting and imaginative film, launched its director, George Romero, on a long and profitable career.
Carnival of Souls ends with something that’s supposed to be a surprise ending but was actually pretty predictable — the film cuts back to the car wreck in Lawrence, Kansas and the car carrying Mary and her two companions is pulled out of the water and all three are dead, suggesting that the bulk of the film has been Mary’s hallucinations during the last few minutes of her life — though (once again either intentionally or by accident — imdb.com said it was an accident but I’m not so sure — both Candace Hilligoss and another woman in the car blink their eyes when they’re supposed to be ‘dead,” suggesting either a mistake left in by a director who didn’t have the money for a retake or a hint that we’re supposed to read these characters as still being alive). But in the meantime the film is so imaginative, so well-done and pushed so far beyond the usual bounds of a micro-budget movie (much the way Teenagers from Outer Space did, though Carnival of Souls is an even finer, richer work, and though it was weakened by its budget limitations it didn’t have any of the bits of low-budget tackiness that marred Teenagers from Outer Space — and Carnival of Souls was also released with a title that emphasized its good qualities instead of one that made it seem stupid) one can readily imagine why it acquired a major cult following (especially on its 1989 re-release) and has been remade twice (in 1998 and 2009).
It’s also helped by a performance by Candace Hilligoss (who also, inexplicably, never made a film again), who’s utterly right for her role; like Joan Woodbury, she’s basically attractive but has a rather bony facial structure that probably kept her from being cast as “normal” romantic leads but both her appearance and her rather out-of-it acting style are utterly appropriate to her role here. (The rest of the cast is either serviceable or — in the cases of Stan Levitt as that smarmy doctor and Sidney Berger as the creepy fellow roomer who wants to get into Mary’s pants — considerably better than that.) This one turned out to be a really unexpected treat!