Indie Horror Meets World Cinema in the Cult 'Carnival of Souls'
With its distinctive atmosphere and cryptic mysteries, Herk Harvey's sole feature film is an unparalleled classic of cult horror.
Carnival of SoulsDirector: Herk Harvey
Cast: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Frances Feist
US DVD release date: 2016-07-12
Helmed by one-off feature film director Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls is, for many, the definitive American B-movie of the ‘60s. The film offers a unique snapshot of horror cinema in 1962 middle America due to its low budget and its independence from Hollywood studio interference, as well as the fact that it’s only survived because of a devoted fan base and consistent theatrical and home video re-releases. It's regarded as the preeminent cult horror film not only because of its quietly rebellious nature, but also because it stands out so prominently from its contemporaries in ways that are somewhat hard to appreciate today when a majority of great horror films are independent productions of a similar nature.
The film’s plot contains many standard elements; it follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), an organist, isolated by her own inability to connect with others, who somehow survives a devastating car crash only to be relentlessly haunted by ghosts drawing her to an exotic abandoned carnival. Yet, in the early ‘60s, the movie was distinguished mostly by its shockingly creepy imagery and its early exploration of psychological horror: two qualities that would earn it a slew of imitators in the decades to come.
Today, the film is prized, somewhat paradoxically, for both its amusing campiness and its surprisingly immaculate production quality. It makes one wonder how such a disparate and distinctive film could have come to exist at a time when independent filmmaking was comparatively restrained and nothing like the massive industry -- or the cliché -- it has since become.
The answer is, as always, found in the mind of its creator. Carnival of Souls is set apart in many respects by Harvey’s dynamic and wide-ranging influences. Some of the film’s most incredible sequences find Mary Henry descending, without notice, into some hellish fold of reality where those around her cannot see, hear, or touch her, and she runs around delusional and panic-stricken until the world suddenly returns to normal. In a testament to Harvey’s deep well of inspirations, these scenes reflect the iconic dream sequence from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries just as much as an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Harvey’s love of world cinema is on display constantly throughout the film. In fact, the movie’s reliance on funereal atmosphere, its sudden bursts of shocking imagery, and its occasional inventiveness with low-budget special effects to surprise and disquiet the audience are all the tools which made Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 classic Vampyr so innovative. Even the film’s opening drag race scene seems cut from the same cloth as parts of the French New Wave, with its rapid-fire jump cuts and Americana cool influenced by, or at least developed almost in parallel to, the same sensibilities Jean-Luc Godard famously experimented with in Breathless (1960) and, later, in Band of Outsiders (1964). In a commentary track, Harvey referred to wanting his film to have “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau” (a quote so revealing it’s included on the back cover of the Criterion edition). Few major Hollywood directors working within the studio system at the time could have claimed to be inspired by so many groundbreaking artists from around the world, and even fewer would have shown this influence in their work itself.
Indeed, much of the success of Carnival of Souls is due to Harvey’s artistically independent approach to the film. Beyond his internationally-informed vision, the movie was indebted to both he and screenwriter John Clifford’s work as industrial and educational filmmakers with the Kansas firm Centron Corporation. Carnival of Souls maintains the austere, exacting style of filmmaking Harvey was used to (much of the crew was actually borrowed from Centron on off-hours), but coupled with his reference points from European film, it takes on an eerie stiffness which complements the film’s prevailing mood of unnatural fantasy. Because of a low budget, Clifford wrote the screenplay in just three weeks, prompting some unusual on-set improvisation, and many of the actors were students and amateurs, lending the film its charmingly campy air. Were it made within the stiflingly political and bureaucratic landscape of the studio system, Carnival of Souls would not be what it is. In fact, it probably wouldn’t exist at all.
Of course, much of the film transcends its severe limitations, which is a testament to an ambitious cast and crew. Carnival of Souls’ two most critically lauded qualities are Gene Moore’s solemn Gothic organ score and the gorgeous cinematography by Maurice Prather (a Centron employee), which, more than perhaps anything else, helped elevate the film beyond its B-movie status. Prather supplies the film with some of the horror canon’s most striking, legendary images, not the least of which is the epochal shot of a shell-shocked Mary Henry rising out of the sludgy river onto a muddy bank after the tragic car crash that opens the movie. If for no other reason, Carnival of Souls deserves its place in film history because of Moore and Prather’s offerings.
However, one cannot downplay Harvey’s own personal contributions in crafting a brilliantly atmospheric thriller at a time when atmosphere was just beginning to really come in to horror films. Carnival of Souls, despite its limited release, has had such a long legacy in part because its idiosyncratic style has been a point of inspiration for so many legendary filmmakers since. The movie reminds one most of the stilted dreaminess at play in the later works of David Lynch, who, for instance, is a noted fan of Carnival of Souls. Even Harvey and Clifford’s awkward ensemble cast is an obvious progenitor of many of Lynch’s characters: one can see the seeds of the creepy elderly couple from the beginning of Mulholland Drive (2001) or the Great Northern Hotel’s dementia-afflicted, non-sequitur-spouting waiter from Twin Peaks in Mary’s oblivious old landlord, or many of Lynch’s dubious greaser types in John Linden -- an aggressively flirtatious punk who finds himself uncomfortably infatuated with Mary. It’s not just Lynch, of course; Harvey’s influence seems to have reached George Romero, John Carpenter, and even Nicolas Roeg at various times, among many others: an incredible feat given that Carnival of Souls was Harvey’s only feature film.
What might make Carnival of Souls so effective for modern audiences is its extreme sense of ambiguity; its lack of answers to satisfy or compensate for its dreamlike logic. We never know why Mary is drawn to the crumbling old carnival, or the nature of the ghost incessantly haunting her (played by Harvey himself), or even why she behaves so blithely just days after being in an accident that ends fatally for her best friends. Some may dismiss these enigmas as a result of an incomplete or sloppy script, but it’s almost irrelevant because it’s this mysterious edge, along with the film’s vast and complicated network of influences, that continues to captivate all varieties of audiences, from arthouse fiends to horror nuts to classic film buffs. It’s entirely unique in that way.
The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition of the film, beyond featuring a beautiful new 4K transfer that preserves film grain and every bit of detail in the movie’s stark look (not to mention an audio track that does justice to Moore’s organ score), comes with about as many special features as one would think possible for a small cult film like Carnival of Souls. The major highlights recontextualize Harvey as, in many ways, a lost auteur: there’s a wonderfully insightful selected scene commentary track featuring Harvey and Clifford in conversation about the production of the film decades later, and an impressive collection of excerpts from several Centron films, varying in length, produced by Harvey and Clifford during their tenure.
Also included is a handful of deleted scenes and outtakes, a 2016 interview with comedian Dana Gould about his love of horror films and Carnival of Souls’ lasting influence, a 1989 documentary centered on a reunion with the cast and crew, two distinct features on the movie’s iconic settings including a broadcast documentary on Saltair, the film’s eerie, dilapidated carnival, produced just four years after the film’s release, and the obligatory Criterion booklet insert (featuring an essay by writer Kier-La Janisse) which also doubles as a small poster featuring artwork in the style of the new cover by Edward Kinsella.
From its near-spotless transfer to its broad and revealing collection of bonus content, this is undoubtedly the definitive edition of the film for fans.