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Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls is a horror cult classic released in 1962. Produced and directed by Herk Harvey for $33,000, the 78-minute movie never gained widespread public attention, but it did strongly influence the later work of filmmakers such as George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead); it also anticipated the plot and concept of such well-known films as The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense by more than thirty years. Set to a remarkable, eerie organ score by Gene Moore and shot in a surrealistic style reminiscent of the work of Jean Cocteau, Carnival of Souls relies more on atmosphere than on special effects to create its mood of horror.

The film tells the story of Mary Henry, a talented young organist (played by Candace Hilligoss). At the film’s beginning, the car in which Mary is riding plunges off a bridge and into a river. Although the others in the car die, Mary mysteriously survives. She then travels to Salt Lake City to take a new job playing organ at a church. While driving there, she passes a large, abandoned pavilion (in reality, Salt Lake City’s SaltAir amusement park), which seems to beckon to her in the twilight. Shortly thereafter, while driving along a deserted stretch of road, she sees an apparition: a deformed, ghoulish figure (aka the Man, played by director Herk Harvey) who stares at her fixedly through the passenger window of her moving car.

As the film progresses, Mary becomes acquainted with her new landlady and a lecherous, sinister fellow tenant (played by Sidney Berger, now University of Houston School of Theatre Director). At the same time, she continues to see visions of the Man, although no one else is aware of his presence. She also begins to experience terrifying moments when she herself becomes invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world, as if she simply isn’t there

The dynamic soon becomes one of her suspension between the regular world and the world of the Man, or, more bluntly, between the realms of the living and the dead. At times she holds herself aloof from her fellow boarder, clearly repulsed by his carnal desires; at others she seems to encourage his advances. At one moment she seems in control of her life, dismissive of anything supernatural (including the possible salvation of religion); at the next she is frightened of the unknown, beyond the help of science (in the person of a doctor from whom she seeks help) and religion (as represented by the minister of the church where she plays).

After arriving in town, Mary starts to become obsessed by the pavilion, as if she is somehow tied to it in a way that she can’t understand. She is also haunted by the organ music she seems to hear along with the audience--organ music which, unlike the wholesome tunes she played in the film’s earlier scenes, grows darker, more sinister, and finally somewhat demented. On her drive to Salt Lake City, she can find nothing on her car radio but this odd music; at one point while in the bath she does a series of steps to the music in her head, a cross between playing the organ and dancing.

This latter sequence foreshadows one of the film’s eeriest, best-shot, and most classic scenes. While at first Mary was unable to connect to the “real” world, she suddenly begins to open up and connect all too easily to the world of the Man. While practicing alone in church one night, she falls into a trance. Her music abruptly shifts from proper and respectable hymns to a weird, demonic melody, and at the same time her body language turns darkly sensuous. Now playing barefoot, she gently toes the organ’s long rows of pedals in a coquettish ballet as her splayed fingers first caress the keyboards with elaborate gestures and then grip them spasmodically. (We’re obviously watching a seduction unfold, complete with a game of footsie and perhaps a consummation.) As she coaxes her malevolent tune from the organ, she experiences an extended impressionistic vision of a throng of ghouls emerging from the water to waltz to her music in the pavilion’s ruined ballroom. At this point she seems to know that she is lost, and from here on her appeals for help to her acquaintances become at once more desperate and more despairing.

After the organ trance scene, the ghouls appear more and more often. Though Mary tries frantically to escape them--at one point boarding a bus to leave town only to find that they comprise all of the passengers--in the end she cannot resist being drawn back to the pavilion one last time, where the ghouls proceed to chase her down and spirit her away. The minister, the doctor, and the police, arriving at the pavilion to investigate, cannot explain her mysterious disappearance. The film’s final scene, however, shows us what had been hidden from Mary all along: a shot of her lifeless body in the car that plunged into the river. She has been dead all the while . . .

Kansas-based Herk Harvey was a director and producer of industrial and educational films. During a visit to Salt Lake City, he developed the idea for a horror film involving the SaltAir Pavilion, which made a strong impact on him. Hiring one up-and-coming actress (Hilligoss) and otherwise employing mostly local talent, he shot Carnival of Souls in a few weeks in Lawrence and Salt Lake City. Given the movie’s extremely low budget and Harvey’s inexperience with the genre, the film contains a considerable amount of plot problems, bad dialogue, cheap effects, continuity errors, and techniques that reveal Harvey’s industrial film background. But Harvey, with his vision, manages to transcend all of these flaws to present a film replete with little strokes of genius and a basic concept that many find quite unsettling. Given better distribution, Carnival of Souls would surely have become a better-known film. As it is, its revival, first on late-night local television, then on videocassette, and now on high-quality re-mastered Criterion Collection and Off Color Films DVDs, has succeeded in making it not only a seminal artistic work in the horror film genre but a genuine cult classic.

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Get Carnival of Souls on DVD
Carnival of Souls on DVD