Written by John Clifford
Directed by Herk Harvey
Starring Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger
US Release Sept. 26, 1962
RT 91 min.
Home Video The Criterion Collection
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers; twist of movie revealed.
There’s not much I can write about the cult classic, Carnival of Souls, that hasn’t already been written. And since the filmmakers were from my neck of the woods in Lawrence, Kansas, I won’t presume to provide an abridged history of the production falling woefully short on facts. However, the one unique aspect I can bring to the conversation is my opinion. I can tell you why it is that I like Carnival of Souls, and why I like it so much.
Primarily, it’s the atmosphere, mood and tone that’s consistent throughout the movie, from beginning to end, that captures my adoration. Shot in glorious black and white on what I presume was a shoestring budget, Carnival of Souls evokes an uneasy feeling. I can’t say I was ever confused by the story or surprised by its ending, but for me, the journey itself is what matters. As a viewer, I felt I was in purgatory right along with Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss).
When she and three lady friends are challenged to a drag race, then speed past a warning sign (“Road Under Construction – Travel at Your Own Risk”) and run off a bridge, I never imagined Mary would survive. When she crawls out of the water and goes about her business as usual, it’s the first clue that something is… not right. When she interacts with others, I thought, “Well, she’s not dead.” However, there’s an immediate link to those who are, one that eerily calls to her for the rest of the film.
There are plenty of clues that Mary is in some state of limbo, not the least of which is that she doesn’t remember the accident and feels no “humbleness or gratitude” for surviving. Besides the title of the movie, there are two other references to the word “soul” or “souls.” Her old employer tells her, “It takes more than intellect to be a musician; put your soul into it.” Later, her new employer tells her, “We need an organist capable of stirring the soul.”
In fact, you’d be pretty dim to not learn in short order what’s happening to her. While trying on a new dress during a shopping trip, the onscreen image ripples and suddenly no one can see or hear Mary. Running into the arms of a doctor afterwards, he takes her across the street to his office. “It was as though for a time I didn’t exist… had no place.” On a return visit later, she says, “I don’t belong in the world. Something separates me.”
The fact that there may be no mystery once you figure it out doesn’t matter in the least. Carnival of Souls is all about the experience. For Mary, who isn’t so quick to learn, though, it’s not just creepy, it’s at times terrifying. She’s pursued by the white-faced spirit of a man at every turn. And when she’s drawn to an abandoned carnival, other spirits rise out of the water and dance before her. Later, they chase her in a final scene that puts some action and, then, resolution to her dreamy condition.
Hilligoss delivers a fine performance, but the fact that nearly every other actor seems stilted actually works in the movie’s favor. It’s another element that sets her apart from the rest of the world. There’s no explanation for how she slips in and out of reality, but none is needed. Perhaps they don’t exist at all and we’re seeing Mary’s journey to her final resting place as she accepts what has happened to her. A clue to this lies in the fact that the mysterious white-faced man often disappears to become a “real” person.
There’s also a comment about religion in Carnival of Souls that might explain Mary’s less than expeditious trip to her final resting place. She tells John Linden (Sidney Berger), a man staying at the same boarding house, that although she is a church organist, “To me a church is just a place of business.” Playing the organ is just a job and she refers to the minister as her “boss.” She seems to have no faith and may indeed be agnostic.
This is what I make of it all, anyway, and that’s another reason I like the movie so much. You can make anything you want of it. Or, if you don’t want to think about it that much, you don’t have to. There are enough scary images and plenty of chilling scenes to satisfy a simple viewing. In many ways it reminds me of the original Night of the Living Dead; I can’t imagine it wasn’t an influence on George R. Romero. The two movies would make a terrific Halloween double feature.