Carnival of Souls – What is Between Life and Death?
Directed by Herk Harvey (1962)
by Ashley McClosky
“In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand.”
What is life like after you are the only survivor of a horrible accident? How do you start over? In Carnival of Souls, we follow Mary, who is in that exact situation. After miraculously emerging from the water dazed but unharmed when the car she was in plunges over a bridge, she starts over by taking a job as a church organist in a new town. It doesn’t take long for Mary to be haunted by the ghastly presence of a pale man who seems to be following her when she is alone, seemingly luring her through spooky organ music on her car radio to an abandoned carnival ground pavilion, which has a deep subconscious significance to Mary that she doesn’t understand.
Mary tries to live a normal life, but constantly seeing this strange grinning man is taking its toll on her. What is worse is that no one else seems to notice him. She is also dealing with the creepy advances of her sleazy fellow boarder, John, who seems way worse than the eerie, quiet zombie stalker. Seriously, I would take the pale weirdo over this slimeball. (Although I definitely don’t hate the idea of having brandy in my coffee every morning – he’s on to something there, I will give him that.)
Not only does Mary see things that no one else does, but she experiences some terrifying instances of being seemingly nonexistent to others around her. People don’t see her, people don’t hear her, and even more chilling, she does not hear anything other than her own voice. I found these scenes to be very creepy and claustrophobic.
Mary begins seeing a psychologist who she literally bumps into when running away from The Man, who is essentially useless, and we begin to see even more how all that she is experiencing is affecting her. We watch on as Mary is seemingly suddenly possessed as she practices organ at the church where she works – her arms slithering around like tentacles, her feet fondling the organ pedals, and her mind going to the carnival pavilion as she plays sinister music that would liven up any church service. The minister is very disturbed by the “profane” music she is playing and insists that she resign. That night, Mary finally agrees to a date with John because she just doesn’t want to be alone, and is again haunted by The Man, upsetting her greatly. She tries to tell John what has been happening to her, causing him to get the hell out of there, since she is obviously losing her mind and he is obviously not getting any action. It has become quite clear to others that something is very strange and off about Mary, but no one, including Mary herself, understands what.
After one more fruitless attempt at seeing her doctor, Mary decides she has to go to the pavilion herself to figure out why she is being drawn there. What does she find? Watch it and find out.
What I Like:
The Atmosphere: The spooky and eerie atmosphere of this film leaves me in a trance-like state that really sticks with me. There are some outstanding overhead camera shots that are very ambitious for a small-budget independent film – including scenes of Mary playing the organ and exploring the pavilion. The organ music sets the atmosphere perfectly – it seems like the notes are wrong, but that’s the point. I also appreciate that it is all practical, not relying on silly looking B-movie effects, but instead using dark black and white cinematography to get under the skin.
Mary: I really connect with this character, which is interesting since no one else in her world does. She was portrayed by one of the only actual actors on the production – nearly everyone else was just local city folk. She reminds me of a slightly imbalanced and strange Hitchcock blonde. She works in a church yet has no interest in religion. She survives a crazy accident yet doesn’t seem too interested in how. She is distant yet sympathetic. I also love that the actress, Candace Hilligloss, only made one more film, so she is unrecognizable for anything else. It makes me feel like this all really happened and she actually disappeared.
The Man: This is one creepy looking dude, yet not violent or menacing like a typical horror villain. He is actually portrayed by the film’s director, Herk Harvey, which I think is really cool. His makeup reminds me of a George Romero Night of the Living Dead zombie and I love all the places he appears – car windows, mirrors, chairs, etc. I found him very intriguing.
The Ending: Just watch it!
What I Don’t Like:
The Opening Scene: This has to be the most jarring start to a film that I’ve seen. It almost seems as if there is supposed to be something before what we see that is missing. There is no establishing shot or anything that sets the mood or atmosphere whatsoever, which is unfortunate considering some of the fantastic scenes later on in the film. It instantly begins with a man challenging a vehicle of ladies to a drag race, and then the accident. We don’t know these characters at all, so the accident doesn’t mean much to the audience. The first five minutes or so almost made me stop watching because it seemed pretty forgettable and amateurish, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. Trust me, it doesn’t take long for a dark mood to take over.
John: Just in case you didn’t already know, I find this character annoying and kind of dick-ish. He is not a lovable drunk, but more the pervy uncle type who takes things too far. He just irritates me without adding much to the film.
This is the type of film that deserves to be viewed more than once. After watching it a few times, the creepy atmosphere latched on to me and I felt like I was a part of the world around me, and yet an outsider. I felt like Mary, being drawn to the pavilion. Sometimes I wish I lived in this black and white world where spooky ghouls followed me and normal people ignored me. Actually, that sounds perfect.