Carnival of Souls (1962)
Part of The Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
The one-and-done director. A filmmaker who gave the world a little taste with a single film and then…POOF! Never again. Of course, some directors were mighty displeased with the experience and swore off making movies forever. Others may have had their film taken away and in turn retreated in disgust. Still, others made movies so bad that no one with even an ounce of sense would ever let them near a camera again. Charles Laughton’s 1955 gothic horror The Night of the Hunter may be the most famous example of a director creating a masterpiece and never taking the reins again. This very specific category has a massive amount of actors-turned directors like James Cagney (Short Cut To Hell), Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks), Timothy Carey (The World’s Greatest Sinner), John Malkovich (The Dancer Upstairs), Frank Sinatra (None but the Brave), Albert Finney (Charles Bubbles), Jack Lemmon (Kotch), Larry Hagman (Beware! The Blob), Joan Rivers (Rabbit Test), John Saxon (Zombie Death House), Eddie Murphy (Harlem Nights), Anne Bancroft (Fatso), Dan Aykroyd (Nothing But Trouble), Morgan Freeman (Bopha!), Steven Seagal (On Deadly Ground), Stephen Fry (Bright Young Things), Walter Matthau (Gangster Story), and Peter Lorre (The Lost One).
That’s not to say actors were the only ones to take a shot, since we also have Manos: the Hands of Fate (Harold P. Warren), The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, replacing Martin Scorsese), Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo), The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon), The Seven-Ups (Philip D’Antoni), Phase IV (Saul Bass), Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (George Barry), Moment by Moment (Jane Wagner), The Deadly Spawn (Douglas McKeown), Return to Oz (Walter Murch), and of course, Street Trash (J. Michael Muro). Most of these people were writers, producers, or unknowns (fertilizer salesman) with a dream. There is one movie, however, that will always stand apart from the one-and-done bunch. Sure, this director only made one feature, but in his lifetime he directed over 400 films. It’s just that Carnival of Souls (1962) was his only narrative feature. This is a clear example of a filmmaker with a talented eye and a gift for mood who just decided to shoot a movie in a couple of weeks and then get back to his day job. Who knows what else he might have gifted the masses beyond helpful educational and industrial films like Shake Hands with Danger (1980)?
Director Herk Harvey (who also came up with the story) wastes no time jumping right into the action. We’re first treated to cheap knock-off fanfare for film distributor Herts-Lion International which looks like a bargain-basement 20th Century Fox logo. This company would go out of business in 1964. After that, it’s smooth sailing as Harvey finds a group of kids drag racing. Turns out to be a bad idea since one of the cars goes over a bridge and into the river in an impressive crash for a low-budget feature. The water ripples and our title shimmers into view. One immediately notices the eerie, disquieting and very unique organ-based score. It strikes the right chord, or discord, to keep the viewer off-balance.
The lone survivor of the wreck (Candace Hilligoss) stumbles out of the dirty river while the surviving drag racers lie about what happened. Her name is Mary and she’s lucky to be alive. They can’t even find the car, let alone any of her friends. Her life as she knows it will never be the same again. She doesn’t know that yet, but as she drives across the bridge that almost took her life, she senses something is off. She pulls a plug on the car console and we get a brilliant cut to her day job as a church organist. Harvey’s attention to detail, particularly his ability to transition from one scene to another, can’t be understated. His shot compositions are also impressive, framing tiny Mary in the center of a massive pipe organ which resembles a prison. She’s accepts a job at a church in Utah and claims she will “never be coming back.” Extremely strong-willed and progressive in her disinterest in religion as anything other than being a job that pays the rent, Mary is not much of a people person. She drives through the dead of night with some outstanding rack focus and window reflection effects. It’s here she first has visions of the creature affectionately referred to as the ‘Head Ghoul’ as well as more simply ‘The Man,’ played by director Herk Harvey. She drives off the road but dismisses it. The camera pans off into the darkness, cutting to Mary’s new apartment in another great transition.
It’s important to explain Harvey’s background to understand why this film is so sharp and so impressive for a low-budget genre flick. A director for Centron Productions in Lawrence, Kansas, his specialty was short subject pieces about everything from household projects to public safety. His usual crew was obviously used to being creative on the fly. He may not have known it, but shooting so many different films and adapting his style to fit each individual production honed his skills to the point that he maximized the amount of footage he could shoot in a limited timeframe. With a cultivated understanding of how to do more with the camera than wide, medium, close, he’d find exciting and unexpected ways to visually depict psychological horror and paranoia. Carnival of Souls is often compared to the work of Roman Polanski, particularly his Repulsion, released 3 years later in 1965.
Mary doesn’t seem to care for priests, which might not mesh well with her current profession. Her new boss drives her out past a dilapidated area that seems to be calling to her. It’s a mysterious and forgotten pavilion once bustling with people enjoying its carnival atmosphere and especially its dance hall. Arriving home, she takes a bath and, thinking her landlady is bringing her dinner, answers the door only clad in a towel. This is a bad move since her El Sleazo Deluxe neighbor John (Sidney Berger) is single and wants to mingle. She goes to change and he sneaks a peek, an extreme close-up of his eye peering through the crack in the door. He’s unbelievably pushy and a real horny creep who’s practically humping the walls, but eventually, she comes to somewhat tolerate him. He brings her some much-needed coffee the next morning, endearing himself to her. Is it his confidence? Is that it? I’ll go by the advice of the clitoris in the South Park movie: “Dude, you just have to have confidence. Chicks love confidence.”
Mary goes out shopping and as she changes in the dressing room, the screen ripples, an ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come. Just for fun, she can’t open the door for a minute. Little things like this ratchet up the tension. Suddenly, no one can hear her. She tries to get the attention of everyone in the store but no one can see her either. What’s worse, all of the sounds around her have disappeared. Cars stop honking. Birds stop chirping. It’s a clever and economic way to transport her into a new, scary universe. I was once in a short play which reminded me of this situation as all of the sound in the world had disappeared and the only way to reverse the effect was to kiss someone. Mary isn’t that fortunate, however, and if she had to pick between dead silence and kissing that awful John, I think she’d let things stay quiet.
As quick as it went away, the sound returns to her world. She runs into a doctor (Stan Levitt) on the street, who is a bit intense but takes her to his office. Dr. Samuels has a real old-fashioned bedside manner. It’s never addressed, but he seems like the type who thinks women get hysterical due to their ‘sensitive nerves’ or ‘time of the month’ and he’d probably prescribe her Quaaludes at the drop of a hat. He believes that her visions of ‘The Man’ is a manifestation of her trauma after surviving the accident. It’s a decent theory and she tries to get on with her life, but the carnival draws her back. This time, she enters and the effect is haunting. Gorgeous wide shots show how vast and empty the structures are and the wind blows through the buildings, disturbing the tattered streamers and chandeliers hanging above the decaying dance floor. There’s a recurring theme of barriers; the camera is often slightly behind something she wishes to get past. It’s as if she’s in some kind of limbo and trying to make her way to the other side.
She goes to the church, intending to practice on the organ. Instead, we’re treated to a terrifying montage of ghouls rising out of the water and spinning on the dance floor, dark circles under their eyes, and ‘The Man’ reaching out toward the camera. Hands come down on her own and it’s the priest. He fires her for playing blasphemous music, probably rock and/or roll. What the Hell could she possibly have been playing to make her get shit canned?
Walking hard-on John convinces her to go on a date with him, but since she won’t put out, he gets increasingly frustrated and pissed. There’s a telling and pretty awful exchange between him and another member of the He-Man Woman Haters Club at the diner they go to, which includes this line, “She’s not the usual pig you drag around.” Ugh. They go back to her place and he does NOT get the meaning of ‘No Means No.’ It’s very uncomfortable and she needs to smash something over his head before he tries to smash. Luckily (?), she has another vision of ‘The Man’ in a reflection, causing her to freak out and chase John off. This could be a good way to end a bad date, just saying.
The doctor reappears to examine Mary and has a conversation with the landlady. This is an intriguing scene, not for its dialogue, but for its existence since the movie stays exclusively with Mary. As our suspicions mount that she may indeed be in an alternate universe or limbo, their conversation brings this idea into question, thickening the mystery cloud of what the Hell is going on.
Her car starts to act up and she stops off at a mechanic’s shop. Refusing to leave the car, there’s a slow, creepy moment as the car rises up for the mechanic to inspect it. The ripples return and she is invisible again. All she wants to do is leave Utah (doesn’t everyone?) and she even boards a bus, which is full of smiling ghouls, or are they souls? The one very minor complaint is that she doesn’t touch anyone. No one can hear her, but you want her to smack somebody just to get their attention. It’s a silly thing to complain about, but it would make sense to do. Her hearing returns when a bird chirps once again, and she looks very pretty under a tree in the sunlight. She finds herself in familiar territory and there’s a jarring cut into the doctor’s office. She makes an interesting observation that the creatures seem to be trying to “take her back” somewhere. The doctor, who in a previous scene had apologized for turning his chair away from her, is once again turned away. This time, when the chair turns, it’s ‘The Man.’ This clip is often used for documentaries about great horror films. I had seen this part so many times that I hadn’t thought it was particularly effective. In the context of the film, it works very well. The head ghoul even smiles, which I like since he actually has a playfully evil personality. This all turns out to be a horrible nightmare she’s having in the car. She blasts out of the auto shop and races to her destiny.
We arrive at the climax of the movie, appropriately taking place at the eponymous carnival. The ghouls spin around aimlessly and ‘The Man’ holds a familiar-looking blonde woman in his arms. It’s Mary, dark circles under her eyes, looking limp and zombie-like. It’s no wonder that George A. Romero said this film was a major influence on The Night of the Living Dead (1968). She sees herself and screams, resulting in a horrifying chase. The organ blares on the soundtrack along with a malevolent laugh and the ghouls surround her, blocking out the sky.
At this point, I think I’ve got the film figured out, but it presents a major mind fuck finale that calls everything into question. Mary has disappeared and a search party that includes the doctor, priest, and the police survey the pavilion. They find her footprints and even handprints in the sand, but then nothing. As if she disappeared into thin air. We cut to the river from the opening scene and the car has been recovered and dragged out. Mary lays dead along with her friends in the front seat (one of which can’t help but blink, despite being dead, ruining the moment). I had assumed that following the crash, she was merely having a near-death experience. A fantasy right before drowning. With the inclusion of the doctor/landlady scene along with the search party, this doesn’t work because she appears to have really existed and interacted with these people. So, what happened? The theory now becomes that these ghouls are really the souls of the dead and she somehow was separated from her soul in the crash. Her body continued to live but the other side was constantly calling, explaining the ripples and her being unseen and unheard. ‘The Man’ was trying to reunite her body with her soul and although it’s presented as a frightening fate, she needed to cross over or else wander the Earth, lost forever.
Carnival of Souls received a proper re-release in 1989. Herk Harvey passed away in 1996, but was able to enjoy a late-career resurgence and even donned his ghoul make-up for a reunion. A poorly-received remake was produced in 1998, further proving the importance and influence of the original film. Harvey often shrugged off the film as merely an interesting diversion from his day job, but intentional or not, he ended up creating an extraordinary film that will never be forgotten.