Once in a while, a film that was initially deemed a failure finds a new lease of life several years later, becoming what is often referred to as a cult classic. One such film was the 1962 horror Carnival of Souls, which was originally released as a double bill with The Devil's Messenger, to little fanfare. Over time the film found its fanbase though, leading to a re-release in 1989 which helped cement its cult-status. What's particularly sad about this very long road to recognition though was that the director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford never made any other feature films, as they were retired by the time people's love for Carnival of Souls finally appeared (and they have since passed away). The pair worked for Centron Corporation, an industrial film company that made corporate and public information films. They made Carnival of Souls in their holidays, then went back to their day jobs at Centron, which is a real shame as it's a fantastic film and I'd have loved to have seen what else they could do.
Carnival of Souls opens with a car full of young women, including Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), getting into a road race with a car full of young men. What starts as a bit of fun ends in tragedy when the girls' car careens off the side of a bridge into the river below. The car can't be found, but hours later Mary appears from the river, dazed but physically healthy. She's so traumatized by the event, she feels she has to leave town to escape the memory of what happened. So she heads off to Utah to be a church organist. On the way, she drives past a strange abandoned pavilion on the Great Salt Lake and finds herself strangely drawn to it. It triggers visions of a strange, pale-faced man though who keeps appearing and drawing ever closer. As no one else seems to see him, she begins to question her sanity. Being a strong-willed woman, she feels the need to face the problem head on.
American horror films from the 50's tend not to have aged well. There are exceptions of course, but a lot of horror films around the time tend to be monster movies with dated special effects or gothic horrors based on classic literature that look pretty, but aren't particularly scary. There are a small handful of films that helped change the horror landscape in the 60s though. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho pushed a lot of boundaries in 1960, Robert Wise's The Haunting in 1963 fused psychological and gothic horror very effectively, the splatter movie was invented in the same year with Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast and Night of the Living Dead brought zombies to the fore in 1968. Watching Carnival of Souls, I believe it was equally as ahead of its time as those titles. It may not have been well-seen on its original release, but it wasn't like anything else out at the time and must have been seen by some people, as its style looks to have influenced other horror directors since. David Lynch is known to be a fan for instance, and you can see shades of his films in Carnival of Souls. It truly feels like a modern horror film, despite the odd aged aspects you're bound to get from a low budget film from the era. Its simple, nameless, relentless villain reminded me of It Follows in particular (although that film is quite nostalgic of course).
Carnival of Souls is still pretty scary too. Several of the jump scares worked on me and the creepy appearances of the figure (played by the director Harvey in an uncredited role) were genuinely chilling at times. The film thrives on its nightmarish atmosphere, as the story is fairly sparse and simple, and is all the better for it. The finale has a few slightly silly shots when a variety of figures pop up next to our protagonist, but one the whole the sequence is still powerful and I loved the Twilight Zone-esque twist at the end. Some have said it's a predictable end to the film, but I thought it left enough details unanswered to give the finale an effective sense of unease and it couldn't have sensibly ended any other way.
The film is remarkably well made considering its budget and the background of its crew too. Yes, the director and writer churned out corporate films in their day job, but nothing like this. Their professionalism likely helped keep things technically sound and efficient though. The cinematography is particularly nice, with great use of light and shadow and some artfully composed shots. Harvey also managed to get a couple of decent actors on board too, as Hilligoss does well in the lead and Sidney Berger impresses as Mary's slimy neighbour who is desperate for her affections. The actors in smaller roles are less effective, but you can't expect knockout performances across the board when you're working on a budget of $33,000. Besides, the awkward, wooden deliveries here and there add to the dream-like quality of the film.
So there may be some technical hitches here and there (the ADR and foley syncing can be pretty ropey), on top of other pitfalls of low-budget filmmaking, but on the whole this is a hugely atmospheric horror film that feels decades ahead of its time. It's a deserved cult classic and it's a crying shame we never saw more from its writer or director. Perhaps it's for the best though. Maybe a higher budget and studio interference would prevent the magic on display here from ever happening again. Or maybe not. We'll never know.
Carnival of Souls is out on Blu-Ray in the UK on 23rd October, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer looks and sounds stunning, particularly considering the film's age and low budget
There are a tonnes of special features included too:
- Selected-scene audio commentary featuring director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford
- New interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould
- New video essay by film critic David Cairns
- The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the film’s cast and crew
- The Carnival Tour, a 2000 update on the film’s locations
- Excerpts from movies made by the Centron Corporation, an industrial film company based in Lawrence, Kansas, that once employed Harvey and Clifford
- Deleted scenes
- Outtakes, accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score
- History of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City, where key scenes in the film were shot
- PLUS: An essay by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse
The commentary, interview, essay and reunion doc are the strongest features here, filling in a lot of info about the film's production and gradual cult status. The other features are curiosities more than anything, but might be of interest to fans of the film. I must admit I couldn't sit through all of the Centron films as they're pretty dull and often laughably clunky. They're fun to skim through though to see what sort of films Harvey and Clifford made day to day.