The Film: Carnival of Souls (1962)
The Principles: Herk Harvey (Director). Candace Hilligoss. Sidney Berger. Frances Feist. Art Ellison. Stan Levitt.
The Premise: After miraculously surviving a drag-racing crash, Mary Henry (Hilligoss) decides to start a new life as the pipe-organist for a small church in Utah. But creepy old abandoned carnival pavilions and ghostly apparitions usually spell trouble for people trying to start new lives and, unfortunately for Mary Henry, both play a central role in this existential horror film from industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey, making his narrative feature debut.
Somebody needs to hire me to write blurbs for the back of Blu-ray cases.
Is It Good: I think it was Ebert who said something along the lines of “A movie isn’t about what it’s about, but how it’s about it.” I don’t know which movie he was speaking of when he said it, but it could have very easily been about Carnival of Souls. I mentioned earlier that it was Harvey’s debut feature – as his background was industrial and educational films – and it’s pretty much the same story for every single person involved, in front of and behind the camera. So what you have is a group of people who understood the mechanics of filmmaking incredibly well, but were essentially learning on the job when it came to artistic side of it. And it shows in a lot of ways, both good and (sort of) bad.
Sort of bad because the more jaded (read: lazy) of us are going to watch this movie and see plot holes, unanswered questions and a story that sort of meanders along at a weird pace and contradicts itself to the point of ridiculousness.
The important thing to remember here is that those people are wrong.
Oh sure, those wobbles technically exist, but to focus on that is to miss the point entirely as “telling a story” doesn’t really seem to be the primary motivation here. It’s an experience that Harvey’s after; an experience that – for all intents and purposes – doesn’t require much more from the narrative than a few character pulses and plot beats. And then its imagery and sound (that score!) and photography that take those character pulses and plot beats and give them texture and weight and meaning.
That’s kind of a tricky word to use though because once the credits roll, meaning is the very thing you’re going to be left searching for. And it’s not that there isn’t one, it’s just that once things start taking a turn for the slightly abstract, a lot of questions get raised and the film doesn’t give two shits about answering them. I watched it for the second time very recently and when it was done I found myself in the same place I was the first time I watched it nearly a decade ago – I don’t have any idea what it means but that’s okay because I felt everything I was supposed to feel. It’s a weird sort of pseudo-POV effect, where you’re watching it in the third-person but you almost sort of experience it from the first. Which sounds silly and pretentious now that I read it, yes, but even so – Harvey found a way to take Mary’s inherent sort of disconnection and irreverence, combined with the confusion and dread and terror that haunts her in Utah and filters it down into tone and atmosphere. It’s that experience I mentioned before.
And it’s a damn good one.
Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. And don’t misunderstand – the story isn’t at all bad or lacking, it just has a different set of priorities. And while it certainly shares a spiritual connection with more heady, expressionistic pieces of cinema, this isn’t nearly as impenetrable, if those types of films aren’t your trip. You can stream it in Hulu+’s Criterion Section. So, ya know, go do that.
Random Anecdotes: Roundabout 10 or 11 years ago, the TV station I worked for signed a deal with one of these small-time syndicate houses that had broadcast rights to a lot of these old movies. Some of the old Arkoff stuff, The Last Man on Earth, The Giant Gila Monster, Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Wasp Woman – all kinds of stuff, including, obviously, Carnival of Souls. They sent us all the movies on BetaSP, but each one needed to be formatted for television (have commercial breaks edited into them) and it would have to be done by someone in-house.
Naturally I very emphatically volunteered.
But because I wanted to take the time to do it right – find natural breaks in between sequences so they didn’t look all chopped up, etc – and because we had like 15 or 20 of these movies on-hand, it ended up being an overtime project, which meant I’d be up at the station until midnight or later sometimes, watching these old horror movies and editing them down. It was a lot of fun…until I got to Carnival of Souls. At which point I found myself in the back half of an empty, dark, too-damn-quiet TV station at 2am being unnerved and shaken by existential dread and terror. All of a sudden it wasn’t a lot of fun anymore…it was a fucking blast.
It’s still, to this day, my single favorite memory from working in TV. And even if I don’t get out of the business for another 20 years, that probably won’t ever change.
Cinematc Soulmates: That shitty remake. Eraserhead. The Sixth Sense. The Tree of Life. The Fountain.