“Carnival of Souls” (1962)
Studio: Harcourt Productions
Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Frances Feist, Stan Levitt
Directed by: Herk Harvey
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 78 min.
Synopsis: A woman moves to a new town after getting in a near death car accident and gets a job as organist. She starts to see strange things like a ghostly-looking man that follows her around.
If you are looking for a really eerie film this Halloween, then Carnival of Souls is the movie for you. Not only is this film very creepy and scary, but also it is very artistic in the way that it is photographed and edited. It is a real work of art and a frightening film that will have you looking around every corner and peeking out your window after you see it.
The film starts off with a group of girls racing a group of boys down a road. The two cars wind up on a bridge and the girls end up crashing off the side and landing straight into the water. One of the three girls, Mary (Candace Hilligoss) survives the crash, but the car and the other girls are not found. A few days after, Mary leaves town to start a new job as a church organist trying to get a fresh start. Soon after she leaves she is haunted by an image of a ghostly man that appears around town and in her new apartment.
Mary is also fascinated with an old carnival that is out by the beach. She believes that if she goes there she might get some answers into who keeps on stalking her. Also, strange things seem to happen to her, like no one being able to see or hear her for long periods of times. She is also very cold to everyone and keeps to herself. Her neighbor, John (Sidney Berger) tries to befriend her, but is later turned off from her strange behavior. Mary continues to seek out why these strange things are happening to her in this new town.
Carnival of Souls is almost a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone and has many similarities to a certain episode called The Hitch-Hiker. It has the same look and feel as an episode from that series. I often link this film with two others that were made in the 60’s, which are Dementia 13 and Night of the Living Dead. All three are public domain and shot in black and white, but also all three have a documentary look and a feel of realism (more so with Night then Dementia 13) and all of them have great scares and creepy scenes. The director, Herk Harvey, mostly dealt with making documentaries, which is why Carnival has that kind of feel to it. Most of the supporting or minor characters of the film are real and don’t seem like actors and all of them have this creepy vibe to them and I’m not just talking about the characters that play the ghosts that are haunting Mary. These people are not strange or creepy in the way they act, but just the expressions on their faces just give me the chills.
There are parts of the film and characters that remind me of other films that were made before and after Carnival. The scenes with Mary driving into her new location almost reminds me of the scene in Psycho when Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane is driving down the road in the dark. There’s even a scene where Mary stops at a gas station and acts a little strange to the attendant there, which echoes when Marion pulls into the used car lot to get rid of her car. Their names are similar as well and even the dress Mary wears is almost the same style as Leigh’s. Hilligoss who plays Mary, also reminds me of Judith O’ Dea who plays Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. Their face, hairstyle, and behavior are almost identical. The cemetery zombie in Night played by Bill Hinzman is kind of similar to the ghoul or ghost that has been stalking Mary, with their black suit, white hair, and zombie mannerisms.
As I mentioned before, this film is a work of art because of its surrealism and stylish look. Once the film starts after the car crashes into the water we see the title of the film appear in these waving looking letters across the water. The images of Mary walking around town, in her car, in her apartment, or in church are very nightmarish. Mary herself looks bizarre at times with her facial expressions and the way she moves her eyes looks as if she’s frightened to death.
The scenes with the ghouls are very good and are the best part of the film. These living dead creatures or ghosts who haunt Mary seem to pop up out of nowhere for a great scare or she has images of them at the carnival. Some of the key scenes that are wonderfully shot with the ghouls are when they all emerge from the water one by one and have this evil look on their faces. The others are scenes at the carnival and they are all dancing. There is one part where Mary is watching them and they suddenly stop and look up at her and then start to chase her. That scene is very frightening and there is another similar scene to that where Mary gets on a bus and all of them are on it staring at her.
The cinematography is top notch and there are plenty of obscure angles that are used in some parts and some wide angles to give it great atmosphere and depth. The film also has a great use of shadow in some scenes and great lighting. The editing is well done and there are a few times where they transition very well from scene to scene. For example, one is towards the beginning when Mary gets in her car. There is a mid-shot of her turning the key to start her car then it transitions to her turning some buttons on a church organ. The other scene was when Mary is at the gas station when she first arrives into town and shows the attendant her new address and asks where it is. The attendant points towards the darkness and says it’s over there. The camera pans over to the darkness and we are in pitch black. The next thing that happens is a door opens up and we see Mary and her landlady enter her new apartment.
Carnival of Souls is a mix of The Twilight Zone and someone’s surreal nightmare. It’s a film that has a simple premise but is executed very effectively and is also very artsy with a touch of realism. This film is a cult favorite among horror fans and one of the best horror films to come out of the 60’s. This was Harvey’s only feature film that he made. Who knows what else he could have done in the horror genre or any other narrative genre in feature length films. Well, he made a great impact with this haunting and nightmarish movie.