Carnival of Souls

Dir. Herk Harvey

This obscure and oddly affecting horror film from the sixties was directed by Herk Harvey and shot on a ridiculously low budget in Lawrence, Kansas. It showcases Harvey’s vivid imagination and grandiose aspirations, despite the shoestring budget.

After a drag racing accident, resulting in a car being forced off a bridge into the murky depths of the river below, church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) seemingly emerges as the sole survivor. She appears dazed and soaked on the river bank before wandering off to begin a new life for herself in Utah.
However, she soon finds her daily chores increasingly interrupted by the spectre of a cadaverous man (portrayed by Herk Harvey) who stalks her every move. Eventually she is mysteriously drawn to an eerie amusement park on an abandoned pavilion outside town, where she realises the full horror of her fate.

The film successfully creates a veneer of normality which the otherworldly intrudes upon unassumingly at first, and then to devastating effect. Banal guesthouses, dingy dinners and bustling streets all play host to distressing situations and introverted fears.
The stark black and white photography evokes memories of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and other such haunting works of Expressionism.
The cinematography perfectly enhances the strange and bleak mood and nurtures a dreamy atmosphere that gradually plunges into nightmarish depths. The subtle shudders are also reminiscent of the hauntingly poetic films of Val Lewton. Chills are elicited through the impending feeling of dread that becomes imminently palpable throughout. The nightmarish feel of the film is aided by the spooky score of organ music, smothering proceedings in an unshakable gothic ambiance.

‘The world is so different in the daylight, but in the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand…’
A number of effectively unnerving scenes include the unsettling visage of Mary’s ghastly stalker appearing at her car window as she drives along lonely roads towards Utah. A couple of quietly eerie scenes also feature Mary practising the organ in an empty church: we observe her playing from a number of creepy angles before she appears to become possessed by some unearthly force and the music she plays becomes deliriously creepy - she is then evicted from the premises by a horrified Minister.

Another shuddersome scene involves Mary wandering through a bustling city square where no one seems to notice her or hear her pleas. Subsequently, her tentative exploration of the deserted carnival pavillion seems meticulously engineered to induce shivers in almost every shot. Supremely creepy and strikingly beautiful.

Her tentative relationship with her neighbour John (Sidney Berger) is perhaps the only instance of warmth in a film that simply drips with anxiety and dread, and even this friendship ends sourly. The guesthouse where she stays seems to be a purgatory for the hurt and the helpless. John and Mrs Thomas the landlady (Francis Feist) simply fade in and out of the story, providing fleeting company for Mary, before she is once again on her lonesome.
Mary is a lost soul who stubbornly refuses to see the reality of her predicament. Candace Hilligoss provides a sympathetic performance and ensures that the viewer is as ensconced in the disturbing events as Mary is. She is a loner who seemingly shuns human contact, clutching at her independence and solitude, and gradually retreating deeper and deeper into the darkness that envelopes her. The film successfully creates a feeling of bleak hopelessness that is utterly consuming and all the more affecting due to the moving performance of Hilligoss.

The uncanny and anguished atmosphere evoked throughout Carnival of Souls, appears to have had no small influence on the work of David Lynch, particularly Eraserhead (1977). The somnambulistic ghouls of George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (1968) also appear to have their roots entrenched deeply within the imagery of Carnival of Souls, particularly in a scene depicting a group of empty-eyed, ghoulish beings emerging from a pool (also echoed in Romero’s Land of the Dead, 2005) to pursue Mary through the empty amusement park and eventually force her to embrace her dark destiny...

A melancholy horror that haunts like a waking dream.


Anonymous said…
The stills from this look incredible James. I love the car window shot and the woman silhouetted against the doorway!
James Gracey said…
it is such a creepy film - despite the obviously low budget, it is still immensely provocative and unsettling. yay. these were just a few stills - but ones i felt really showcased the eerie mood of the film. check it out...
Vince said…
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Vous aimez la série B et les quizs? Venez donc voir mon blog "Vince's Quiz"!

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