Carnival of Souls is one of the great low-budget horror movies and it’s also a rather unusual movie of its type. Made in 1961 on an absurdly small budget it disappeared almost without trace at the time but since then its reputation as a cult film has grown steadily.
Herk Harvey was a maker of industrial and educational films in Kansas. One day he discovered, quite by accident, a location that seemed absolutely perfect as a setting for a horror film. He asked his friend John Clifford to write a script and then set about raising finance from local businessmen to make a feature film.
The setting was Saltair, a resort on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The resort included an amusement park and a pavilion and it was the pavilion that would feature so strikingly in the movie. This was actually the second such pavilion, the first having been destroyed by fire in 1925 (unfortunately the second pavilion would also be destroyed in a fire in 1970). The second Saltair pavilion was an enormous dance hall, and it would be the scene for the bizarre dance sequence at the end of the movie.
When he first saw the pavilion Harvey had the idea of the dead emerging from the lake to attend a kind of danse macabre. This idea was to form the central inspiration for the movie’s plot.
The movie opens with three girls in a car being inveigled into a drag race. They lose control on a bridge and their car crashes into a river. Frantic attempts to rescue the girls seem to have been in vain when one of the girls emerges from the river, having miraculously survived the accident.
The girl, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), is a rather quiet girl who is about to take up a position as a church organist in Lawrence, Kansas. She finds a room in a boarding house where she attracts the (somewhat unwelcome) attentions of fellow lodger John Linden (Sidney Berger).
Mary seems to be becoming more and more disconnected from reality, as if she somehow doesn’t belong. She is also convinced she is being followed by a corpse-like figure. The man doesn’t threaten her but his presence (or possibly imagined presence) certainly disturbs her. Mary’s strangeness causes concern to kindly Dr Samuels (Sam Levitt) who tries to help her.
Mary is also increasingly drawn to the abandoned Saltair Pavilion which she had passed on her way to Lawrence. As she becomes more disconnected her fascination for this gloomy but oddly beautiful place grows steadily. The pavilion will be the scene for the movie’s climax.
There’s no need to say any more about the plot. This is not really a plot-driven movie in any case - it’s the mood and the strange central character that matter.
John Clifford admits that when he started writing the script he had no clear idea where it was going and that even in the finished script he had no truly coherent idea of what it all meant. This is in fact one of the movie’s greatest strengths. I have always firmly believed that it is not the business of a horror movie to scare the audience, that the aim should be to create an atmosphere of unease and of a vague cosmic wrongness. This aim is often easier to accomplish if the movie avoids the temptation of over-explaining things. Horror that is formless, amorphous and ambiguous is generally more effective than horror that is overt and explicit. Carnival of Souls is a textbook example of how to create the subtle horror of suggestion.
Herk Harvey claimed that his intention was to make a movie with the look of Bergman movie and the feel of Cocteau. He had always had the idea that the movie might be more suited to the art-house than to the drive-in circuit. These were considerable ambitions for a first-time director. The surprising thing is that overall the movie really does achieve what he set out to do.
The movie failed commercially on its initial release, due in large part to nightmarish distribution problems. It finally started to attract attention when it was sold to TV and its cult following built steadily. Herk Harvey was never to make another feature but he did live long enough to have the satisfaction of seeing Carnival of Souls not only achieve his ambition of playing the art-house circuit but also being lauded internationally at film festivals.
Obviously a movie made on a budget of around $30,000 could have been more polished had more time and money been available but overall the minuscule budget was more of an asset than a liability - Harvey and Clifford had very little money to work with but they did have complete freedom. More money always involves more compromises. It also has to be said that Harvey made the small budget go a very long way. This is a visually stunning film. This was partly due to Harvey’s good fortune in finding truly amazing locations - the pavilion, the organ factory, the wooden-slatted bridge. Harvey himself pays tribute, and rightly so, to his cinematographer Maurice Prather. There’s no question however that much of the film’s success is due to the extraordinary vision of director Herk Harvey.
Candace Hilligoss’s performance is crucial, and impressive. Harvey and writer John Clifford wanted the protagonist to be a person with no real emotional connection whatsoever with other people. That’s a challenge to an actress but Hilligoss is equal to it, capturing the aloof emotionally empty quality of the character extremely effectively.
While Harvey admits that his inexperience in feature films coupled with the lack of time and money does make the movie rather less polished than it might otherwise have been he believes that this actually enhances the movie’s disturbing weirdness, and he’s undoubtedly correct. Despite these minor rough edges what is truly impressive about Carnival of Souls is just how visually striking it is. There are some extraordinarily inspired touches of subtle spookiness. The scenes in Saltair are as effective and as well-crafted as anything you’re likely to find in a big-budget major studio production. Being entirely new to the world of feature films gave Harvey and Clifford the advantage of being able to approach the project without any preconceptions and with refreshing originality.
The major revelation of the story is unlikely to come as a surprise but it’s the atmosphere that is created that matters and that atmosphere is achieved superbly.
Criterion really went to town with their DVD release which includes (on two discs) both the original theatrical print and a slightly longer director’s cut as well as a host of extras, most notably an abbreviated but highly informative audio commentary from the writer and director and print interviews with them as well as star Candace Hilligoss. Image quality is superb.
Carnival of Souls is a genuine masterpiece of low-key horror. Very highly recommended.