Carnival of Souls (1962) - Well not much has been happening with this blog. The business of my work is overwhelming the time I have for it. It's a shame because every now and again I have the time to watch a horror film and would like to talk about it. I decided to watch one of my favorite small low budget horror movies for the first entry of the year. I got the Criterian Collectoin Blu-Ray for Christmas so a nice version I was guaranteed. Carnival of Souls was made by Herk Harvey for a mere $33,000 and with the incredibly eerie organ score by Gene Moore the film builds a wonderfully creepy mood. Written by John Clifford this tightly well constructed story stars Candice Hilligoss as Mary a passenger in a car accident who miraculously survives being submerged in a river for three hours it is a meditation of life and death. She lives in a purgatory unannounced to the audience upon first viewing and the surprise ending is just a great turn. Emerging covered in mud she is a miracle but the story only lingers on that. She quickly recovers and heads to Utah where she has been hired as an organist at a church. She finds herself drawn to an old carnival pavilion she passes on the way. After taking a room she begins to have hallucinatory experience and seeing ghoulish faces, ever more drawn to the carnival. When all is said and done the twist occurs and we see that she has been living in a kind of purgatory being ever drawn back to death.
Since this film is so old and such a cult classic most horror aficionados already know the twist and gist of the film. So I will NOT do a spoiler free review here. In fact the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray has a wonderful essay on the film by Keir-La Janisse the author of "House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films" If you buy and read that you can certainly skip my novice retelling of the plot. The essay included in the Blu-ray is excellent and far superior to anything I will do here. Instead lets look at the larger themes in it and how they relate to the plot. It supposes that there is a space between life and death. Mary crawls from a river after the car crashed three hours before with no explanation of how she survived in the fast running muddy river. She also crawls out right at the sight of the crash and not downstream as one would imagine. She is seen by the gathered crowd on the bridge and is touched by the officer putting a coat on her shoulder. This implies she is solid in form and not a ghost. She does not remember how she survived and little time is spent with anyone who can explain it.. She is sort of reborn from the river, she has a second chance at life. The next time we see her she is visiting the sight of the crash looking and reflecting on what has happened. This before starting a new life far away. The audience stays with Mary not hearing from anyone else bout what happened. We don't know if she is seen as a miracle or not. We don't see the grieving families of the other girls in the car crash.
A small scene where we see her play the organ is interesting in that it sort of establishes her as not particularly religious. When the man (Tom McGinnis) who got her the gig in Utah asks her about it, she says that "It's just a job, that she is not becoming part of the church but instead is just playing music. When he asks if she is going to visit her parents before leaving she tightens up and says not she is just going to "drive straight through". Maybe again enforcing her rebirth into a different life. Does the possibility she is less religious indicate that she could not pass on the afterlife? The organ factory boss says she should put her soul into this new job. Does this also play to that theme? She states emphatically that she is never coming back and has to once again travel over the same bridge before getting to Utah.
Once in the state she can only get eerie organ music on the radio and then she sees the pavilion, and then the face of a man in the passenger side window. This is a passage from her former life into a new realm. I love that Mary is not the easiest person to get along with. After the awkward conversation with the boss of the organ factory she has an equally off beat interaction with her new landlady in the Utah boarding house. After an awkward silence when seeing the room she is less than polite with her comment that the room is certainly what she expected, instead of saying it was nice like a polite person would do. Then again when the Minister (Art Ellison) at the church asks her if she would like to have a welcoming reception with the congregation, she says "Couldn't we just skip that." She is uncomfortable around people. It could be that she is just an anxious person but it could also be that she is not quite able to connect with the living?
The strange encounters build while she is trying to settle in as the organist for the church. She and the Minister has another prescient interaction with the minister when he takes her to the abandoned pavilion. There is a barrier fence falling down to keep people out but Mary wants very much to go out into the place.The minister explains it isn't safe, but she ask him "Could you take me out there." he says no because you know laws about trespassing but she says she would very much like to go out to the place. She keeps seeing that strange man with the white pastie face and is disturbed by it. Also bothered by the other roomer in the house, a fast talking somewhat aggressive warehouse worker. Her wants to see more of her but she only consents when the strangeness of the town and her weird experiences make her too scared to be alone. Awkward with the living but seemingly drawn to the dead her life gets stranger and stranger.
She gets scared after having audio (or lack of) hallucinations where she can not hear anything except her own voice. She tries to interact with people around her but they do not see or hear her. Mary is beginning to cross over out of this world with each experience being more intense than the one before it. This latest one gets her some help from a local doctor (Stan Levitt) who sees her scared in the park. As they talk through her recent traumas he suggest she is having guilt of being the sole survivor of the car crash. She expresses how she does not need the company of others (the living) and resolves that her seeing the pastie face man is her imagination that she is going to face her fear by going out to the pavilion. She does it and it seems to calm her seeing that it is an abandoned park. Sure a couple thing happen to startle her but the big thing is something the audience sees that Mary doesn't. The pastie faced man laying in a pool of water.
Where this could be a turning point for the better it really isn't. Mary afraid of the night coming agrees to have a date with the slimy roomer John Lindon (Sidney Berger). From the beginning he has been presented an a sleaze obviously looking to get her dress off. Played a bit over the top he is a lower class guy just looking to get with a woman normally out of his reach. Mary has an awful night, at organ practice at the church she is possessed by (?) the spirit of the dead and plays the strange creepy organ music that we have heard throughout the film.While in this playing trance she sees the abandoned park and the dead rising to dance in the dance hall, around and around at unnatural speed to her playing. Only coming out of it as the pastie faced man come towards he hand reaching for her. Interrupted by the Minister she is fired on the spot for playing blasphemous music. After a horrible date with all hand John where she again sees the pastie faced man Mary chases off John and has a frantic night barricading herself in her room, she decides to leave town.
Of course she is inevitably going to be drawn back to that pavilion and the pastie faced people that inhabit the place. After another hallucination while waiting in her car for a mechanic she is impelled to go back to the but this time as the sun sets. Daylight has been her refuge and now her fate will be met in the dark. Seeing the dead rise once more to dance in the ballroom. She now is one of them in the dance and as dead as they are. We learn the woman vanished into this air, the doctor and the police wondering out loud what could have happened.
Back in Kansas they have finally found the car, with surprise all three girls dead inside of it. Closing poor Mary's time in purgatory and ending the film. I love this film even with all its pushy men roles, the lecherous John Lindon in the rooming house, the pushy Minister who wants to save Mary's soul, and the boss at the organ factory, none really recognizes her as a person with her own drives but instead try to influence her into their ideas about what is good for her. She is a complex character played well by Hilligoss. A character that is disconnected to those around her and most probably still in shock from her trauma but one with a mind of her own. As someone who gets tired of religion infiltrating everything in our world it is refreshing to see a film where the main character limits that effect in her thinking. I still marvel that this script was written in just a month and produced for so little money and I am truly glad it exists.