Carnival of Souls might just be the best thing to come out of an attempt to make a B-movie I’ve ever seen. Shot for a paltry $33,000, this is a very intense, mood-heavy horror that I found to be both mesmerizing and evocative. Compared to most of the films I’ve seen to cost that much from the 60s, I could name maybe zero that were worth 85-90 minutes of your time. This one, though, is a boon to the low-budget American feature, a mind-bender with a palpable terror in it, and just a damn fine feature. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t blame you, but now’s a good time to check it out and scare the tar out of some of your friends.
It all begins on a bridge, similar to the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Three young girls decide to fool around and drag race on a bridge with three young, cute boys. The boys accidentally bump the girls and they plummet off the bridge, presumably to their deaths. But it’s not all cut-and-dry, because one of the girls, an organist named Mary, somehow survives. She emerges from the river, shaken but apparently alive, and tries to get on with her life after the terrible tragedy that befell her. Something’s different, though, after the crash. She can’t shake this horrible vision of a gaunt, pale-faced man staring at her, beckoning to her. She sees him in mirrors, in public places, in the privacy of her apartment. Even when she moves to Salt Lake City to fill a position for a church organist, she sees him silently staring at her, calling to him. And it becomes more than just the Man, as more and more ghoulish figures arise from the ether to torment her while she struggles with the burden of this life without life, this ghastly, lonely existence, where her only tie to reality is an abandoned pavilion that calls to her betwixt the great gulf of reality and the disturbing world of the Man. What does the Man want from her? Where did he come from? Will she ever be able to rid herself of him?
Better evidence that the simple ideas can be the most effective has rarely been found. I went into Carnival of Souls not knowing what to expect, and I came out genuinely unnerved. It’s not a film to be taken lightly, and even fans of modern horror films with the BOO! scares and the loud music can respect its power. It has an ability to frighten that lies in its unknowable, mysterious nature. We don’t know the reason the Man desires for Mary, where he comes from, or why he is tied to the abandoned pavilion, but we feel that he’s a malevolent spirit that won’t rest until she’s in his grasp. It’s his relentlessness that gets me. Poor Mary is in shambles by the end of this film, because the Man is always popping out at her when she feels she’s safe.
Director Herk Harvey is an innovator, a man truly before his time when it came to making horror. He has such a knack for finding the most visceral shots, the most tingle-inducing scenery, and the most haunting music. It’s very, very impressive for the budget. He also had a knack for make-up, because here he actually plays as the mysterious Man who desperately wants the company of our heroine Mary. And does anyone recognize the name of Herk Harvey from anywhere besides this? Well, if you ever had to watch educational shorts, or if you just like watching those old, antiquated pieces of shit, you’ll remember him as the director of a vast amount of Centron Productions! That’s right, if you were ever instructed on school spirit, choosing industrial arts in high school, peer pressure, or good hygiene by a shaky, disembodied voice, it was probably a film made by Herk Harvey! This was his ONLY feature film, and it leaves me to wonder what might have been if he had continued to make more features throughout his life.
Candace Hilligoss is Mary, our tragic hero. She must face all this terror alone, inside a veneer of stability and control for the outside world. I saw a lot of potential with her as a leading woman here. She’s brave but not afraid to show her vulnerabilities to the camera. When she’s playing the organ, her dainty feet gingerly touching the pedals as the pours her heart into the song with her fingers, I saw a lot of character in that; it’s the only escape she has from the Man and his Carnival of Souls. And when that too is tainted by the otherworldly power of the Man, I felt a genuine tug on my heart strings. She’s a very well-rounded actress, and it’s a god-damn shame she’s not in more films.
So a very frightening film that’s not for laughs (even though Mike Nelson, on a commentary track for the DVD, mocked it soundly). Carnival of Souls is a movie about the unknown. Herk Harvey pulls and twists on the imaginations of the audience with his inexplicable imagery for 85 minutes, and even when the ending is finally revealed to you, you won’t easily forget the eerie build-up to it. I highly recommend Carnival of Souls for any serious horror movie-watching marathon! I give it 9 Centron Productions out of 10! A high recommendation!
Tomorrow we’ll be taking a gander at The Devils! Until then!