Monday, 11 June 2012

Carnival of Souls (1962)

In my salad days, when I was an innocent young thing as fresh as a daisy and as pure as the snow, I used to rent stacks of movies from Blockbuster (how retro) and watch them in my basement late at night. If I watched something scary, I often couldn't stomach simply walking upstairs when the movie finished and was instead compelled to bound up the steps two at a time, glancing behind me at frequent intervals, lest some cinematic monster pounced unexpectedly. If I watched something REALLY scary, I would not even bother to turn the lights off but would race up the second flight of stairs as well, long-jump into bed, squeeze my eyes shut in terror, and try to fall asleep under the glare of my overhead light (which I didn't dare turn off). Eventually, I stopped doing this (only for dignity's sake, not because I stopped terrifying myself with scary movies).

Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey) made me want to race up two flights of stairs, leap into bed fully dressed, and attempt to fall asleep with the lights on. It's not a scary movie, per se. No terrifying monsters or gross-out gore. But Carnival of Souls is so insidiously creepy that unease and dread build up in the pit of your stomach, unnoticed at first, then more and more discomfiting, until when the movie's over the only respite is the sweet release of sleep and the desperate hope that morning's light will arrive quickly. Or maybe I'm projecting.

For real though, this is some creepy shit.
Carnival of Souls' sordid story starts when its heroine, Mary (Candace Hilligloss), is involved in a watery, Apparently Irrelevant, car wreck. She brushes the accident off and accepts a post as church organist in Salt Lake City, where she annoys her neighbors by being a frigid atheist (I love this girl). Mary is prevented from getting comfortable in her new digs by a ghoulish apparition (director Herk Harvey in pasty makeup) which appears when she least expects it: she also becomes invisible and deaf from time to time and develops an "unrelated" obsession with an abandoned carnival nearby. Long story short, Mary visits the carnival and meets her doom (I don't know what else you'd find at an abandoned carnival but your doom), and the last shot (SPOILER ALERT!) is her car once again being pulled from the water, only this time she's inside it, which I guess means she was dead the whole time, although the movie never really explains.

There's not a long going on in Carnival of Souls, but there's a lot going for it. The gorgeous organ score hearkens back to Hammer Horror, despite its church-organ veneer of respectability. The lighting's also solid: when Mary takes a stroll beneath the carnival boardwalk, a stark lattice of light and shadow paints itself across her face, rendering her good looks otherworldly. And this may be a little pretentious, but the way Mary experiences her own death -- becoming invisible to the people around her, unable to hear their voices -- is borrowed straight from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Hardly standard zombie-movie fodder.

I give Carnival of Souls a 3/5. Okay, so it's a glorified Twilight Zone episode in which almost nothing actually happens, which provides no satisfying explanation for its action (and not much action, as far as that goes). But if you're into atmosphere, you'll dig it, and if you know your cult cinema, you'll appreciate what the movie borrows from Bergman -- and how much David Lynch later stole. So yeah, watch it. Just leave the lights on.

She's never going to get that dress clean.
SCENE STEALER: Candace Hilligloss, the Scream Queen time forgot. This girl's great: it's too bad she wasn't in more movies (just The Curse of The Living Corpse, South of Hell Mountain, and this, according to IMDB). She's doing a kind of proto-Faye Dunaway thing here, very self-contained and feline, and it really works. Plus, those cheekbones. I mean, come on. You could grate cheese on them.


  1. I remember seeing a trailer for this on some cheapie Night of the Living Dead DVD. At the time I thought that no movie could be as weird as the trailer made it out to be, but it sounds like maybe it actually delivers.

  2. It's pretty bonkers. I think you'd dig it. It would make a great popcorn-with-friends-and-MST-the-shit-out-of-it movie.