Movie Reviews 262 – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of SoulsWe’re all familiar with those cheap DVD sets that are chock full of movies that have made their way to public domain oblivion for one reason or another. But those dustbins of disregard do hold a few gems. Some, like Night of the Living Dead, are well known and have even attained cult status however most of the movies are in those bins deservedly, having little or no cinematic value, and are now mere curiosities. But in between those extremes are a few movies that have many failing points but at the same time have unique qualities that raise them above their sloppy siblings. At the top of that list is Carnival of Souls.

What it lacks in fine scripting and quality production values it more than makes up for with a distinct mood and ambiance. On the surface it is a simple story of a young woman named Mary (Candace Hilligoss) who emerges from an accident in which the car she was riding in with friends plunges over a bridge railing killing her companions. She miraculously emerges from the mucky waters as the rescuers look on, but from that day forward suffers from haunting dreams and apparitions of an ashen faced figure.

Driving to a small town to work as their new church organ player, she is intrigued by an abandoned roadside carnival as she drives by. She takes up residence in a boarding house where she has to deal with a simple minded shift worker who immediately starts making advances. Almost as soon as she arrives at the church and practices with the organ, she enters a trancelike state and begins playing a high intensity music piece that has her being fired for playing ‘devil’s music’. She later runs into a doctor who briefly tries to help her with her nightmares, but is constantly drawn to the carnival which she eventually visits, only to have more nightmares, the last finally revealing her true destiny.

Hilligoss’ somewhat stilted acting proved to be a gratifying point as her unassured manner fit in perfectly with her character, uncertain of her place in the world. Her tenuous grip with reality is at the forefront of all her encounters with the landlady, fellow boarder, church pastor and the doctor she meets. Accompanied by a haunting score emphasizing the grand pipe organ imagery throughout, it enhances the subtle yet sincere terror, lending the audience to sympathize with Mary.

A shame that this was director Herk Harvey’s first and only feature as his career afterward was concentrated on industrial and educational films. Casting himself in the role of the ashen ghost figure that traumatizes Mary, Herk displayed a knack for pacing and tension.

Once an obscure oddity itself, the movie has steadily grown in reputation over the years and has cast aside the disparaging label associated with most of the other bin buddies. Easily found as there are many public domain collections and single releases of the movie, it is certainly one to look out for.

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