Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

Herk Harvey made Carnival of Souls (1962) in three weeks, with a budget of around $30,000. He came up with the idea, raised the money, directed the picture, helped write the screenplay, and even appeared in it, which says something about how much this production was his personal baby. Despite his love for the project, it flopped, even as a B horror picture on the drive-in circuit. Today, Carnival of Souls is regarded as a "cult classic," which means that people who weren't even born in 1962 caught the film on some late-night television airing and fell in love with it, partly for its charms but more likely for its sheer clunky weirdness. I won't call Carnival of Souls a great movie, or even a good one, but it doesn't exist in that "so bad it's good" territory, either, since its creator seems to take his work very seriously, indeed. There is, however, an artistic vision at work in the film, and the moments in which we glimpse that help to account for the movie’s reputation among certain groups of classic horror fans.

The movie is much more interested in images than story, but it does hang the pictures together on a very thin narrative thread. Organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is involved in a car accident at the opening of the film, the result of a drag race between the female driver of Mary's car and some boys who pull up alongside them at a stoplight. The girls' car ends up in the river, and, long after the searchers assume it's too late, a bedraggled Mary wanders out of the water. People comment on her strange behavior, but she has a job offer in Utah, so she heads out, and along the way she begins to see visions of a frightening, ghoulish man. The visions become more unsettling after she arrives at her destination, and other strange things happen, as well. Nobody else seems to see the things Mary can see, and everyone who meets her is struck by her cold, anti-social demeanor. Drawn to an abandoned carnival ground, Mary hopes to dispel her rising hysteria by confronting her fears.

The performances in the movie don't merit much attention, overall, since Harvey used local talent as much as possible to save money, and it really shows, especially in the character of the doctor. Candace Hilligoss is fine as Mary; she seems stunned through most of the movie, and that's the right note for her to strike. She possesses an unearthly, empty-eyed kind of beauty, and she holds herself like a bird, nervous and fragile. Harvey delights in close-up shots of her delicate, shell-shocked face. Sidney Berger reeks of sexism and lust as Mary's neighbor, Johnny, which would be great if the movie knew what to do with him, but he simply vanishes from the plot. There never was a horror film character more marked for a just and terrible death, but Harvey doesn't seem to be conscious of the genre's conventions in this regard. Poetic justice could easily be served by having Johnny go out to the carnival with Mary and be properly disposed of by the lake ghouls, but, sadly, it doesn't happen.

The chief ghoul, the one who haunts Mary throughout the film, is played by Harvey himself, and I can't fault his performance, such as it is, since he is only seen in flashes and never speaks. He leers at the camera quite convincingly, and he looks perfectly creepy in the make-up. In fact, we could stand to see rather more of him and his fellow ghouls than we do; they are a strange, shuffling horde with vacant expressions, but they are really more interesting than most of the live people who populate the rest of the movie.

There are plenty of people who love Carnival of Souls, and they are not necessarily wrong to admire it. Given its shoestring budget and slapdash production, it achieves more than one might expect, and Harvey clearly had a vision of creating a dreamy, unsettling excursion through the borderlands between life and death. He manages some striking images, mainly of his heroine and himself, and I do love those shots of the lake zombies rising slowly from the water. With more money and time, Harvey might have made a really good picture, something more akin to the nightmarish fantasies of foreign film luminaries like Ingmar Bergman or Georges Franju, to whom Harvey is rather optimistically compared by some commentators. As it is, the film drags, the narrative doesn't quite come together, and much of the acting is wooden, if not laughable, and yet there are moments when the camera captures something better, a fleeting idea of the vision that lived in Herk Harvey's imagination.

Whatever its flaws, Carnival of Souls makes a perfect movie to run on mute in the background at your Halloween party. If low-budget, cult horror classics are your thing, try Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.