A note from Lindsey: Halloween is almost here! The time for ghouls, monsters and otherworldy creatures is upon us. This post is the third in TMP’s four-part, through-the-decades Horror Half-Week series in honor of the spooky holiday. Today’s review features my new favorite 1960s thriller flick, Carnival of Souls. (Previous posts in the series: 1946’s The Face of Marble and 1958’s Attack of the Puppet People)
After drag racing with friends and being run off of a bridge, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) barely escapes. She emerges from the water emotionally scarred.
Before the accident, Mary had plans to move out of town and become an organist at a church elsewhere. Despite the trauma, she continues with those plans.
But upon arrival in the new town, Mary finds herself haunted by a mysterious phantom who seems to live in an run-down, abandoned pavilion. Though terrified of the phantom man, Mary finds herself drawn to the pavilion and the eeriness that lurks there.
Carnival of Souls is a pretty phenomenal piece of work. It was released with the tagline “A story so unusual it will burn itself into your mind,” and it certainly has burned itself into mine. While it may have bombed in its original run, it has gained quite a cult following with modern audiences.
With a crew of less than ten and a budget of only $17,000 (raised over one weekend of fundraising in Lawrence, Kansas, where much of the film was shot), Carnival of Souls was completed in only three weeks, but far outshines most of the resource-guzzling thrillers of the same era. The film was directed by Herk Harvey (who himself appears as the main ghoul, known simply as “The Man”) and written by John Clifford.
Though somewhat slowly paced as a whole, Carnival of Souls grabs the viewer immediately. Nothing catches an audience’s attention quite like a car careening off of a bridge. And despite the moderate pace, the film only gets better from there.
A good chunk of spaces lies between each scare, but the film’s mood tells the audience that there’s more fright coming their way, which keeps the tension high and the viewer hooked. The ghoul that haunts Mary almost always pops up at unexpected times, when she is carrying out normal activities or the action is fairly calm, delivering little shocks that bring the film to life.
Not to mention, a better location could not possibly exist for all of the mystery to be taking place. The pavilion was actually located at Salt Lake City’s Saltair Amusement Park, which ceased operation in 1958. There’s something intrinsically sad and instantly creepy about a place that used to be full of fun but now lies empty, falling apart. The place almost seems as though it was tailor-made for a film like this.
Candace Hilligoss also does a lot to bolster the film’s thrills. She gives a great performance in her leading role, especially considering that this was her first feature. She is sometimes over-the-top, but it works since the character is supposed to be obviously traumatized. In general, she’s quite believable – sometimes even understated, to counteract her overzealous moments.
She becomes more obviously disturbed as the film progresses, and as a result the film gets more suspenseful as it moves along. The viewer is left wondering whether she is crazy or there’s actually something supernatural going on.
Even in the end, these questions aren’t answered. The end is even more puzzling than the rest of the film (which is, in my book, a huge plus). The eerie, psychological mood of Carnival of Souls is pulled of quite easily, thanks in large part to Hilligoss’ efforts and the fantastic script.
Though a slow-burner at first, Carnival of Souls is one of the only thrillers I’ve seen that truly sticks with the viewer, creating a mood of uncertainty and paranoia. High suspense, an great lead performance and a phenomenal ending all add up to the success of Carnival of Souls as a cult classic with a lasting legacy. The score: 5/5!