October Film: Carnival of Souls Analysis

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Herk Harvey – the professional name of Harold Arnold Harvey, born 3 June 1924 – was a student of the theatre, first as an undergraduate then as a graduate at the University of Kansas, acting and directing and afterwards remaining at the university to teach. In 1952 he was hired by the Centron Corporation, an industrial and educational film production company founded a few years earlier in the college town of Lawrence. Initially an actor, he soon become the company’s principal director, gaining a reputation for efficiency and technical innovation.

He was awarded for his work, and in 1956 co-wrote with Charles Lacey an article on ‘Systematic control for special effects in 16 mm production’ for American Cinematographer. At the same time he continued to act locally, appearing at Kansas City’s Resident Theater as Stanley Kowalski in a 1958 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. And he also commissioned a modern home, built within a block of the Centron studios, landscaping its hillside gardens himself.

Harvey took a working vacation from Centron in 1961 to try his hand at a feature film. He had seen some of his fellow industrial directors make successful transitions: Robert Altman, a Kansas City native, had started out making industrial pictures, before his first feature The Delinquents (1957) brought him to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, and led to a decade’s worth of regular work on mainstream television. And besides, Harvey had an idea: he would later say that he devised the outline for Carnival of Souls after driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, Utah. The resort had been completed in 1893, only to burn down in 1925; and despite being rebuilt by 1931, by 1958 it had closed down and fallen into disrepair. This second state of Saltair Pavilion would itself succumb to arson in 1970.

Bringing all of his technical expertise to bear, utilising a hand-held Arriflex camera for many of the film’s sequences, and shooting for three weeks on location in Lawrence and Salt Lake City, Harvey filmed Carnival of Souls for a budget of around $33,000. The lead role was taken by Candace Hilligoss – born 14 August 1935 – who had been a dancer at New York City’s Copacabana, before training briefly under Lee Strasberg and gaining experience acting in summer stock theatre around Philadelphia and Cape Cod. Just as Carnival of Souls was Harvey’s first feature film, it was also Hilligoss’s first time acting in a motion picture.

From Harvey’s plot, John Clifford – a coworker at the Centron Corporation – wrote the script for Carnival of Souls. Beyond Hilligoss, the film was made up of local and part-time acting talent. It was released in the United States on 26 September 1962, as a double feature alongside the Swedish-American anthology horror The Devil’s Messenger. From Harvey’s original cut of 84 minutes, the theatrical release found itself reduced to 78 minutes, cropping out important passages of exposition.

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If Saltair Pavilion provided the spark of inspiration, a sense of the film’s locale and an intimation of its pervasive atmosphere, the story itself offers little more than a twist on a familiar narrative. Carnival of Souls certainly pulls, whether explicitly or implicitly, on an artistic sub-genre derived from Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, published in 1890, and otherwise titled ‘A Dead Man’s Dream’.

Eschewing special effects, the unique vision which Harvey conjures out of well-worn elements is a product of three primary qualities. Candace Hilligoss plays Mary Henry, an organist by trade, who moves to Utah early in the film to take employment in a small church. Fittingly, Carnival of Souls boasts a memorable organ score, alternately eerie, sombre, and dizzily swelling, composed by Gene Moore, and punctuated by ambient sounds and snatches of silence. The black and white cinematography of Maurice Prather, another Centron alum, is crisp and vivid, making exceptional use of shadows and patterns of light, and winningly experimental in the way it captures movement, reflections, and apparitions. And then there is Hilligoss herself, with a skewed beauty – big eyes with fluttering eyelashes, a big nose upturned at the tip, full lips, and wavy blonde hair – and a contained but captivating presence.

Carnival of Souls offers a relatively early example of a pre-credit sequence: a form of the ‘cold open’ before the technique became a television commonplace later in the decade, on shows such as Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and The Avengers. In fact, it is arguable that in Carnival of Souls, all of the action occurs before the opening credits. Two young men pull up beside a car containing Mary Henry and two female friends. One of the men, wearing a cheap boater hat and with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, challenges the women to a race, and as the vehicles careen towards a bridge, Mary anxiously nibbles her lip. But though they jostle for first place, only speed, fate, and inviolable human error cause the women’s car to swerve and crash through the bridge’s barricades, down into the river below. We stay with the rippling water as the credits roll.

The local police spend hours dredging the river, in the meantime questioning the two innocent young men, and just as they are ready to give up, Mary crawls out onto a bank of sand, apparently the only survivor. The distant, reverberating voice of the officer who tends to her, asking ‘How did you get out?’, provides the first casual indication that all may not be well. And while on the surface Carnival of Souls encourages us to accept Mary’s survival as an inexplicable quirk of fortune, in points of detail the film establishes a purgatorial realm.

We are in a strange stasis between heaven and hell or their correlates. Twice when Mary suddenly finds herself invisible to the world around, she glances skywards in a park, and sees light shining through the foliage of trees as birds twitter. She peers up too at the vaulted ceiling and overhanging organ pipes of her new church. And on other occasions, throngs of people look down on her as though she were in a low pit, made small when she stands beneath the bridge on the bank of the river, or when her organ playing attracts its first crowd. Prison bars are suggested in the hanging drapes and striped wallpaper of her room; in the shadows cast by the fence at the old carnival grounds; and on subsequent visits to Dr Samuels’ office, as sunlight streaks through the blinds to mark her face and the back of the doctor’s chair.

Suggestions that Carnival of Souls was a favourite film and a decisive influence for David Lynch and George A. Romero seem unsubstantiated. But there are echoes of image and mood. Look, for instance, at the Lady in the Radiator in Eraserhead (1977), and particularly at the scene in Carnival of Souls where Mary wanders through a cylindrical prop, at the old carnival which continually reasserts its mysterious hold. And at the white-faced ‘Mystery Man’ in Lost Highway (1997), a match for the ghoulish figure known simply as ‘The Man’, played in Carnival of Souls by an uncredited Harvey.

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But more broadly, without diminishing its artistic worth as a standalone film, surely some of the reason for the continued critical acclaim and cult following of Carnival of Souls resides in the sheer extent of cinema it evokes. The carnival setting and the climactic, whirling, helpless and sundering dance sequences call to mind Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and the pictures of Federico Fellini, especially  (1963) and Amarcord (1973). There is a psychic parallel too with the close of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977).  The cinematography draws upon German expressionism and film noir. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) likewise turns on an extraordinary blonde’s descent into water. And when Mary emerges, she is an alternate-reality Bond girl, perverse and demure, but no less sensual or subjected to the gaze of men.

Between a shopping excursion and her brief stint as the church organist, the main subplot of Carnival of Souls involves Mary and a man across the hall: John Linden, Mrs Thomas’ only other lodger. Linden knocks on the door of Mary’s room soon after her arrival in Utah, but she shows no interest and wishes him a cursory goodnight. However, disturbed by the encroachments of ‘The Man’, the next morning she is more receptive, and agrees to spend the evening with Linden, who pushes her for sex but departs in haste when he decides she is crazy. Mary cries ‘I don’t want to be left alone!’, and in the process Carnival of Souls offers a novel take on male and female sexuality, showing how it can be ghastly, cold and desperate, and withholding of life, without precluding love’s warmth and necessity.

Sidney Berger’s John Linden is confident but crass, lecherous but barely refraining from brazen vulgarity. Frances Feist plays Mrs Thomas with an ideal combination of feminine concern, landlordly obligation and self interest, and amused curiosity. And Art Ellison as the church minister and Stan Levitt as Dr Samuels are stern and demanding, but not without compassion. The carnival grounds have their own personality: a gas station attendant tells Mary the space was once a bathhouse, then a dance hall after the water from the lake went down.

At question throughout is the state of Mary Henry’s soul. When Mary discusses her impending move to Utah with the manager of an organ factory, he advises her, ‘It takes more than intellect to be a musician. Put your soul into it a little, okay?’ And when the Utah minister first hears her play, he rejoices that his church has found ‘an organist capable of stirring the soul’ – only to conclude later that while Mary might stir the souls of others, it is a property she herself lacks, as he asks her to hand in her resignation. Mary admits, ‘I have no desire for the close company of other people’, but she doesn’t know if this is the result of some change within her, or whether she has always felt this way.

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‘”Carnival of Souls” is an odd, obscure horror film that was made on a low budget in 1962 in Lawrence, Kan., and still has an intriguing power. Like a lost episode from “Twilight Zone,” it places the supernatural right in the middle of everyday life and surrounds it with ordinary people. The movie is being revived in art houses around the country for Halloween, and it’s possible that it plays better today than when it was released. It ventures to the edge of camp, but never strays across the line, taking itself with an eerie seriousness.’ – Roger Ebert, Review for the Chicago Sun-Times (1989)

‘”Carnival of Souls” works well enough as chill-up-the-spine cinema, and one might even go further and argue that Mary’s anomie, her disengagement from the living, suggests something more — an existential horror cheapie. But only if one were inclined to argue about such things. Whatever, Harvey’s camerawork gives a new twist to the word “deadpan,” making the most mundane places and people imaginable seem like ghastly hallucinations, and the director shows a flair for elegantly employing existing locations and lighting for maximum disorientation value. “Carnival of Souls” is another case for the preservation of the black-and-white movie — in black and white, even this odd little $30,000 sleeper looks like Art now and again.’ – Joe Brown, Review for The Washington Post (1989)

‘CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a film that, like NOSFERATU (1922), seems to benefit from an eternally self-perpetuating reputation somewhat divorced from its actual quality. CARNIVAL OF SOULS is the sort of film that finds its truest expression not on the screen but in the memory, where its best scenes linger, dream-like and evocative, mentally edited from the poorly paced whole. There is a nightmare quality to its best scenes, which cannot be denied, but if you go back and watch it again, or encounter it for the first time after knowing it by reputation only, you will be disappointed to see what is essentially a great half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE story padded out to feature length.’ – Steve Biodrowski, DVD review at Cinefantastique Online (2010)

‘If you think about it, movies are kind of like ghosts; they can fade from our view, disappear from our sight, and yet still linger in the air like an unexpected chill or lurch from their graves clutching at our memories and minds. That’s what happened with Carnival of Souls, a 1962 black-and-white horror film that was made by director “Herk” Harvey and a like-minded group of first-time, last-time film makers taking a break from their day jobs at Centron, a studio devoted to industrial films and educational shorts. Carnival of Souls played a few drive-ins at the time of its release, but truly found an audience as late-night re-run material, popping up in the wee small hours of the morning to haunt and tease viewers with its slow, dreamlike sense of isolation, knockout cinematography, eerie score and the ripe and vital power of the lead performance from Candace Hilligoss.’ – James Rocchi, ‘Retro Cinema’ review at Moviefone (2007)

‘Occasionally a feature film emerges from the midwest, although this is the first ever out of Lawrence, Kans, where a group of commercial film pros veered off into a try at producing theatrical entertainment. Carnival of Souls is a creditable can of film considering it was put together for less than $100,000. The ghost story, on a format more familiar in literature, has Candace Hilligoss, a dressy blonde, and a couple of gal pals, nudged off of a bridge and a watery death in the swirling river. She surprisingly emerges from the river and goes on to an eerie existence as a new organist at a Salt Lake City church.’ – Variety review (1962)

Watch Carnival of Souls at Culturedarm.