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This is something like a full-length episode of the Twilight Zone,
popular at the time of the movie's release. It's cheaply made, the
photography is grainy, the story basically simple, and the acting
nothing to write home about -- but this is one effective film if you're
Candace Hilligoss is a pretty blonde with a sharp nose and a vulnerable quality about her. (She might remind the viewer of that Twilight Zone episode that starred Inger Stevens continually running into a guy in black, "The Hitch Hiker," maybe?) Candace Hilligoss is not a major actress but it's difficult to imagine a better fit between the individual and the role. She's pretty enough so that men might find it pleasant to stand next to her in the supermarket checkout line, but not too pretty. Her face is defined by its bone structure so that you can almost see the skull beneat the skin. Her slanted, over-sized blue eyes suggest some sort of startled prey animal. And her movements, her body language, are both clumsy and extremely feminine. She wobbles when she runs and minces when she walks. And she's the right age too -- thirtyish -- not a fledgling with a great big Future ahead of her. The successive loss of her friends, her home town, her job in Utah, her room in the boarding house, and eventually her car, is enough to leave anyone in a state of desperation -- especially someone whose sole marketable skill seems to be playing the organ.
The narrative has been gone over so I'll skip any description of it. What distinguishes this movie from others of its type is that, with the exception of the opening scenes of the accident at the bridge, there is no one at all who acts in a perfectly normal manner. (Unlike Inger Stevens, Hilligos has no ordinary sailor to pick up and talk to.) The pervading sense of disquiet is enhanced by the efficient use of locations -- a church, a vast ballroom, a decrepit and deserted amusement park at the end of a pier. And I think the performers contribute as well, their very amateurish awkwardness promoting in the viewer a feeling that "something" is not quite right about what we're witnessing. Even the scenes of quotidian life -- finding a job, fending off a neighbor's advances, trying to be polite to a polite landlady -- seem to be imbued with a kind of hard-to-define cockeyed quality, as in a De Chirico painting. Hilligoss is living in a universe in which nothing, and nobody, has an identity whose validity can be taken for granted. Not even her psychiatrist can be trusted to be what he seems.
There are no big shock moments. Nobody gets slaughtered in a shower. Nothing is "evil" in any ordinary sense. Everything is simply "wrong." And the only music in the score is played on a church organ, mostly eerie chords that shimmer in the background. It's quietly done by director Herk Harvey.
Sidney Berger, who plays Hilligoss's odd neighbor, was in real life a speech instructor at the nearby University of Kansas. The leader of the dead is played by the director. This weird, subdued piece comes to us out of Lawrence, Kansas. It's pretty good for Lawrence, Kansas. But don't set your expectations too high. It's an old black-and-white horror movie, made by amateurs on a minescule budget. But within the limits set by those conditions, it's pretty good for anywhere, for that matter.
After viewing this legendary flick for the first time, I have to say
that the quality they achieved on a shoestring is still impressive
today. Every penny spent on this little film makes its way before the
viewer, which is something that can't be said of most major budget
films then or now. Corman used "getting the money up on the screen" as
his yardstick for his own success as low budget producer and director.
But while I like the Corman cheapies, like Bucket of Blood and Little
Shop of Horrors, and acknowledge that they possess a relatively high
level of workman-like resourcefulness, it's hard to deny that Carnival
makes many of Corman's films look slapped-out and unimaginative in
comparison. Corman usually steered clear of anything poetic, dabbling
with it most pointedly in the dream sequences in his first Poe
adaptations. In contrast, this films makers are quoted to the effect
that they were inspired by Bergman and Cocteau. Now, with such heroic
ambition, Carnival could have turned out a laughable mess. But the
films dark waking dream atmosphere is well realized. They had some
really great locations the pavilion, the wooden bridge, the organ
factory and the church with the "casting out demons" stained glass. The
actress playing the heroine is lucky (or skillful) casting, too; she
doesn't look or act quite like the average person, which is perfect for
the story. If I picked one thing to complain about, it would be the
interlude with the guy from across the hall in the rooming house, about
the writing of that section and especially about the actor who played
him. But I won't. There's just too much good to be said about this
small masterpiece of independent film making.
Ten stars. See it.
Not many people know of this film, surprisingly--this is one of the most
intelligently constructed and atmospheric horror (for lack of a better
movies of all time. Whenever I do run across someone else who has seen this
film, there is an instantaneous, unspoken understanding in regards to the
enduring creepiness of this film.
My first viewing of COS occurred when I had inexplicably awoke in the middle of the night as a boy and switched on the TV. I had missed the opening minutes, but was powerfully drawn into the story. I sat transfixed until the shock ending, and think I just stared until after the sign off and following screen static. The next day I was not entirely sure I had actually watched this film or dreamed it--nobody else had ever heard of it and I never did catch the title (for some reason, its never shown much). Needless to say I was creeped out for days! Films that can affect one's sensibilities like this are golden! Find it and watch it in the middle of the night--alone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The unexpected popularity that sneaks up on movies like 'Carnival of
Souls' is a double-edged sword. The positive aspects, of course, are
renewed interest in undeservedly forgotten and neglected gems, as well
as gloriously informative 2-disc DVD editions put out by Criterion. The
negative result, however, is that the glowing aura created by the
excitement and publicity of rediscovery often outshines the actual
value of the given film, leaving one feeling underwhelmed.
This happened for me with 'Carnival of Souls,' which is undeniably a film that has a creepy and eerie effect, but is also a film that is slight and does not stand up against the reputation that now precedes it. Movies like this work best when encountered casually on television late at night, where one might be blindsided by its hypnotic pull. When one goes to it after having read adjectives like "creepy" and "eerie" applied to it, the movie is confronted by expectations which are likely to be disappointed. And while the Criterion edition offers an insanely satisfying cache of supplements, having access to materials such as interviews with director Herk Harvey, detailed backstory, production stills, advertising materials, and television documentaries on the film and on the current condition of the locations used offers a sense of comfort and reassurance that destroys the movie's mystique.
The paper-thin story follows a young church organist named Mary who survives a nasty car wreck and leaves town to take a job in Utah, where she lodges in a boarding house and fends off the aggressive advances of her across-the-hall neighbor. Strange things begin happening to Mary. She is haunted by visions of a ghastly-looking stranger, is entranced by a decaying nearby bathhouse/carnival grounds long abandoned, and experiences inexplicable episodes where sounds of the outside world are suddenly muted and others fail to notice or respond to her.
The movie's most notable attribute is its skill in establishing atmosphere and a sense of dread. Yet, there's no payoff, and while that's okay, the movie is modest and, at 78 minutes (or 83, if you're watching the director's cut), rather short. If you come to this movie from a position of curiosity, there's a danger of being left with a "that's it?" sort of feeling.
The element I found most intriguing was the pointed passivity of the Mary character. Indifferent to her job and to those around her, Mary is completely detached, and the movie very nearly becomes a character study of a schizoid personality. Surprisingly, the parts that were most engaging for me involved Mary's across-the-hall neighbor, a man named John Linden who is alcoholic, persistent, and very, very horny. Linden's scenes all entail his trying to get into Mary's pants, and he is almost jarringly sexually coercive -- a rapist in the making. Screenwriter John Clifford and actor Sidney Bergen invest this character with an unexpected degree of dimension. If the movie obviously foretells Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead,' it also hints at 'Repulsion.'
There are a great many tasty lost artifacts from the prime of drive-in fare and B-movies, some of which get ostentatiously found and marketed as cult films, thus depriving one of the pleasure of personal discovery. The less you know about 'Carnival of Souls' before viewing it, the more likely you are to enjoy it.
The film is so engaging that you manage to overlook the flaws while
you're watching it. Sure some of the acting and editing are below par,
but you don't realize that fact until after the film is done. During
viewing you get caught up with the story, and Hillgoss' performance.
Mary didn't have to be multi-dimension, but Hillgoss' performance makes
her so. She is cold, alone, and isolated from the world. She has no
friends, and doesn't feel the need for any. Despite the coldness of her
character, you feel sympathetic for her and even begin to hope she gets
out okay. Due to her lack of companionship, she eventually turns to the
chauvinistic man who lives across from her. This is another interesting
character, one who obviously lusts for Mary but doesn't know how to
express his feelings, and it seems if it wasn't for the censorship at
the time, he could've become more fleshed out. As another reviewer
noted, he is obviously on the verge of rape and is emotionally abusive.
The story is simple, yet it grabs you by the throat and refuses to give up until the film is over. A woman bizarrely comes out of water three hours after an accident occurred. How did this happen? As she tries to get away as far as possible from the incident, strange events continuously occur and she finds herself drawn mysteriously to an abandoned carnival. Also, a strange specter appears constantly. Is this a human stalking Mary? Or is it something supernatural or of the psyche? No one else can see him. Things continue to get worse and worse, and many times Mary is unable to communicate or hear the people around her, yet strangely it goes back to normal within moments. The film's ending is slightly predictable, but suiting. Something more flashy would've destroyed the feel.
As many have noted, this isn't a technically flawless film. But you get so sucked in by the film it isn't until the ending that you realize some of the flaws. For one the editing isn't the greatest, but you must remember that the crew had an obscenely low budget to work with. It wasn't for lack of talent, it was for lack of resources. Also some of the supporting actors aren't very good, but again the film is so low-budget that it would've been impossible to pay better performers. Did you really expect to see Oscar winners in a b-film anyways? There are several aspects that easily trump the mild flaws. For one, the camera work is incredible, on par with many Hollywood films. The angles of the organ were particularly affecting, and the upward shots of the ghouls gave you the feeling of helplessness that Mary feels. Also, Hillgoss' performance is, as I stated above, very good. She manages to make a cold and isolated character human and sympathetic instead of the cardboard stereotype that haunts most films of the nature. The actor who plays the neighbor isn't the best, but his character is certainly interesting, a perverted peeping tom that if the film had been made ten years later would've surely been more developed. Also, the crudeness of the acting adds to the feel. Due in fact that Hillgoss provides the only good acting in the film, you get the feeling that something isn't right. The lack of development for almost every other character adds to the dreamlike quality. When was the last time you had a nightmare in which the other people involved where fleshed out.
The most impressive aspect is Harvey's direction. He knew how to make something out of absolutely nothing, and it certainly shows. The angles and pacing are some of the film's benefactors. And the dream sequences and sped-up carnival footage are nothing short of breathtaking, showing his masterful Harvey was. It's a shame he never made another film, but than again if you make only one film, why not have it be a masterpiece? "Carnival of Souls" transcends its limitations. It contains no special effects for the most part, and very minimalist makeup. It shows that imagination is what makes a film work, not flashy dynamics and special effects. Due to this, many fans of newer horror films will not appreciate its genius. For fans of cult films and surrealist films will be impressed. The latter camp will be amazed how the film is very avant-garde despite no budget to work with. The film is one of the ultimate cult films. Ignored when it came out, only decades later was it appreciated on its rerelase in 1989. The same thing happened with "Reefer Madness", "Glen or Glenda", and "Spider Baby". That is, in my opinion, is one of the factors that makes a film a cult film, definitely more so than if the film is just a sleeper hit. Even if it didn't have the cult following, this is still a film that must be seen. It never outright scares you, but it gets under your skin. It leaves a lasting impression, and I guarantee you'll not forget it for the rest of your life. (10/10)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I don't belong in the world
.something separates me from other people"
says Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) in perhaps the most lyrical horror
film ever made. It is the unlikely 1962 masterpiece "Carnival of Souls"
which philosophically fleshes out the premise of "Twilight Zone's" "The
Hitch Hiker" episode (January 1960). The one where Inger Stevens (as
Nan Adams) plays a young woman driving cross country who keeps passing
the "same" man standing by the side of the road. Its masterpiece
quality was unlikely because it was the low budget first feature film
of Herk Harvey (a director of educational short films), using actors
with little acting for the camera experience, and with a story
structure adapted to fit sets and locations to which Harvey had free
One of these locations was an organ factory. This not only dictated the film's unique and beautiful score but it suggested a profession for the main character (Mary Henry), a church organist. With this they really got lucky because it brings in many disturbing religious images and undertones. A church organist seemingly possessed by her instrument, as her playing alternates between the spiritual and the profane, deeply disturbs her wrapped-too-tight" minister who would have benefited from Pollyanna's advice about the "rejoicing texts". The organ factory also serves nicely for a Carol Reed-type angular shot with the huge organ pipes in the foreground and the diminutive figure of Hilligoss far below. This early shot sets the existential tone for what will follow. Finally, there is the moment when she is alone on the highway and her radio will only pick up organ music.
The other location is the abandoned Saltair Pavilion outside Salt Lake City. Much of the story takes place here as Mary Henry is mysteriously drawn to the place. Watch for this shot of her in front of a promotional poster for the Pavilion, on the poster is a look-alike blonde with the same hairstyle. Since the late 19th century, Saltair had been a family swimming/recreational facility built out into the Great Salt Lake. The huge pavilion looks like a strange cross between an Eastern Orthodox church and an Arabian Nights palace. The falling lake level doomed the swimming feature but the place operated as an amusement park until abandoned five years before the filming of "Carnival of Souls". At the time of filming the actual pealing paint, broken glass, collapsed staircases, and general disorder made for a better location than even the best production designer could have constructed. It also works well from a "language of film" symbolic perspective as Mary is shown walking through an unnatural circular passage, which reinforces other subtle off-kilter elements that occur throughout the film.
While much of the film's texture was the happy result of the low budget necessity of using these available locations, the casting of Hilligoss worked out even better. Probably cast because she was the most beautiful actress available for the price, Harvey hit a home run because she brings exactly the right sterile and distanced qualities that the film needs in its main character. Hilligoss might have been an acting-for-the-camera novice but she had extensive stage experience. Harvey was able to get an extraordinary nonverbal performance from her, unexpectedly taking the film deep into the concept of human alienation. Much like "The Incredible Shinking Man", with its existential theme of separation from society, "Carnival of Souls" also transcends its genre and explores the isolation of someone who feels they no longer belong. And like "TISM", the resolution is the realization that loss of identity is freedom, that the infinite and the infinitesimal are the same, that you are not alone because you are a part of something bigger.
The two occasions where Mary Henry suddenly becomes invisible to everyone are much more vivid because Hilligoss is so beautiful. Unlike a person of average appearance, an especially beautiful woman walking down the street is used to drawing stares from virtually everyone. For such a person the phenomenon of sudden invisibility would be far more jarring than for those who are used to not being noticed in the passing crowd.
For budget reasons, egg white was used on the faces of the "dead" cast members, including Harvey himself who plays Mary's recurring apparition. This has an especially eerie effect with black and white film and would be adopted a few years later by George Romero for "Night of the Living Dead".
Educational film veteran Frances Feist plays Mary's cherubic landlady and John Linden plays her slimy (on the make) neighbor. Both are excellent, and the disjointed and stilted acting style of their scenes with Hilligoss will remind many viewers of David Lynch's "Eraserhead".
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I love this film! It's one of my all time favourite movies
and I'd rate it as a deservedly acclaimed cult classic
and the eeriest, most strangely compelling, most
unforgettable and greatest horror movie of all time.
The camera work is beautiful. The organ music, creepy carnival and director Herk Harvey as the figure of Death are all unforgettably eerie. The first time I saw this film (I had already read about it's making in an issue of Fangoria) was on BBC2's Moviedrome introduced by Alex Cox (himself the director of Repo Man, the lacklustre and innacurate Sid & Nancy and the amazing Well Did You Evah music video. On watching the film I was captivated and fascinated and ultimately at the film's conclusion had a strange feeling of deja vu, as if I'd seen it before in a dream or something, long ago.
There are a number of surreal and creepy scenes in the film. The scene where Mary (Candace Hilligoss) goes to the abandoned carnival during the day has a surreal, dreamlike and sensual beauty. Whereas the later scenes
of Mary playing the church organ and seeing in her mind, the dead rising from the sea and the film's carnival/beach conclusion are at once dreamlike and yet somehow documentarylike at the same time. It's unforgettable imagery like this that makes this film such an unforgettable experience. On the other hand, the drunk lodger's attempts to seduce Mary are amusing and some of her biting dialogue and sarcasm helps keep the non horror moments entertaining. The film is also notable for having a clear influence on
films and filmmakers like George A Romero's classic "Night Of The Living Dead" (another 60s b/w horror classic) and David Lynch (compare Herk Harvey's ghoul with Killer Bob's surreal and frightening appearances at unexpected times in Twin Peaks). Be warned however, once you experience the dreamlike qualities of this eerie masterpiece, I can't
guarantee you'll ever awake from it.
The is finest film ever made in America, barr none. That it was
directed by a professional documentarian on what appears to be a budget
of a hundred bucks, with a cast of total unknowns, only makes it all
the more remarkable. First, let's get the 'low-budget' issue out of the
way, because during the later '80s this film developed a following
among those who especially admire cheap films. Applying that to this
film is a big mistake. This film isn't about money, it's about cinema -
what you can and cannot do with a camera and an editing board, using
whatever it is one has to work with.
As with all pure cinema - from Citizen Kane to the Wild Bunch, from the Battleship Potemkin to the Seven Samurai - this film works on many levels at the same time. It is, first, an effective ghost story, in fact probably the only instance of a film that has a real ghost story to tell (most ghost-story films are really horror movies or romances). Then it is also an uncompromising psychological analysis of female frigidity. It is also surrealistic psycho-drama, but it is also a genuine slice of Americana - the film certainly has resonance with the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, but it is determined to present its American characters in their American locations as American, and not as europhilic wannabes. Consequently it is also an historical document of what America was like in the early '60s - really a kind of weird place by today's standards.
One of the qualities that makes a film 'pure cinema' is that the viewer should, on reflection, feel utterly convinced that there is not a camera shot out of place, not a wasted moment, not an image or sound we don't need to have the complete film before us. But of course while watching the film, we should be so captivated by it, we set our critical mind to rest. Despite the darkness of its themes and images, this film drags us along like some obsessive-compulsion we didn't even know we had.
Finally, when watching a truly great film, when the final credit rolls, we should feel as if we have actually experienced the film, not simply watched it. This quality does diminish after repeated viewing - when you find yourself reciting the dialog by heart, you know that you've passed onto the level of remembering the film's experience, rather than living it. But certainly, after the initial viewing we should feel as though we have been changed by the film, and that we now look at the world through different eyes.
This film is really about the fundamental puritanism that remains the core of the American world-view. It treats that world-view with both outrage, sympathy, and even, if one pays close attention, a touch of humor. The souls in this movie are lost souls - but its their carnival, after all; and we're welcomed to it any time we care to visit. However, be forewarned: once inside, we may have to stay.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The sound was horrible in this film. The acting seemed like it was done
by high school students. The score was unneeded. The direction was
horrible. Nothing was explained.
I loved this film.
I know, many of you are probably wondering why I loved a film that denounces everything I feel is needed in a film, but for some odd reason in this film it worked. This was a very scary movie. Not the kind of scary that you need blood or violence to make you jump, but the kind that the violins seemed to shrill your way to behind a pillow. I was really impressed that this film was released in 1962. I would put money down that if this film were to be released today it would do really well.
As I watched this film, I made the comment that this could very well have been a Mystery Science Theater 3000 film. There were certain elements to it that I could see Joel or the bots just making fun of. So, in that sense, I am glad that I didn't see the film with those guys commenting through it, I may not have enjoyed it as much. This was a film full of symbolism, of imagination, and of surprises. I loved the way that Mary went from real life to when people couldn't hear or see her. It showed that something supernatural was at work instead of just some crazy guy following her around. The carnival was spooky. This is one of those films that you would put on at Halloween with a great bottle of wine and your best girl by your side.
Without giving too much away, I enjoyed how this film came to it's conclusion. As the visions of the phantom man became greater and greater, it was obvious that the cops were getting closer and closer to finding the car. I also enjoyed the fact that the "undead" of the film all came out of water to be reborn. It was great foreshadowing to what would happen to Mary.
The director took many risks with the symbolism that he used, and it worked better than some films with today's CGI abilities. You could tell as you watched this film that imagination was flowing with the writer of this film.
It proved that even without a budget you could make a film that would last the test of time, and even be remade over and over again. The surprises were easy, but fun. I saw the ending of this film coming a mile away, but it still kept my attention.
Overall, this film is like a great wine. Imagine opening a bottle of merlot from 1962 and having the whole afternoon to enjoy it. That is how I feel about this film. A definite for anyone to have in their collection!!
Grade: ***** out of *****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Herk Harvey toiled away for over a decade in educational and industrial
films before taking a chance on filming a feature length movie in the
Fall of 1961. He gathered backers from Lawrence, Kansas, used a
graduate film student (Sandy Berger) to cast the lead (Candace
Hilligoss), and filmed the movie during a three week vacation period.
The center set piece was the abandoned Saltair amusement park in Utah,
which has its own mysterious history. The story goes that Harvey was
traveling home to Lawrence, Kansas on business and came upon the
Saltair amusement park from afar, stopped, became fascinated by it, and
then returned with the idea of making a horror movie featuring it.
He approached his colleague John Clifford to write the script and Carnival Of Souls was born. Often cited as an influence on Directors George A. Romero and David Lynch, Carnival Of Souls is an eerie film about what happens when a young girl emerges from what looks to be certain death. Herk Harvey creates a spooky little chiller that draws us in right from the beginning. The black and white cinematography is Bergmanesque in construction with inventive camera angles and an ethereal feel. The scenes that come to mind are the ones in the organ factory and the amusement park pavilion. Gene Moore's music on the organ may be one of the most unique soundtracks ever created, especially for a horror film; it adds immeasurably to the moody atmosphere. The make-up effects are also very effective,considering the film is in black and white. The film relies on its Twilight Zone-like ability to make everyday people, places, and activities seem suspect. The acting by Candace Hilligoss is very good for such a low budget production, and reportedly she didn't know what her character's motivation was throughout the filming; Harvey's intent was to maintain a look of confusion on Hilligoss' face. This is very evident in retrospect, and is the main reason why the audience identifies with her so easily.
For a film that had to be edited so quickly, with an entire reel of film being lost by the developer, there are very few technical errors. Although the film is somewhat predictable eventually, it still remains a fascinating, influential, original work of horror outside the Hollywood mainstream. Unfortunately, this was the only feature film Herk Harvey made due to the fact that he was never paid by the distributors, who went out of business. Today it has become a cult staple among horror film buffs; that's quite an achievement for an industrial filmmaker from Lawrence, Kansas. *** of 4 stars.
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