Carnival of Souls
Dir. Herk Harvey (1962)
A young woman's odd escape from the worst car racing since Grease fades into a dreamy story of creepy-ass carnies and a woman on the brink (or perhaps past it) of a psychotic episode
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
I've been basing some of my most recent viewing off of several "Top 100 Horror Movies" lists, and this one was on every single once I've come across. Surprisingly, it's an older horror that has somehow escaped my grasp, so I was excited to come across it finally. I'm a huge fan of black and white horror; I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, and this movie definitely comes across like an early Serling episode. Let's dive right in!
First off, wow. Crystal clear camerawork from 1962 that looks almost 4K is extremely impressive. Most of the film feels much later-made than it actually is, with the black and white providing the exact right character for the stage-like production. Some of the film is grainy, giving it a wonderfully bizarre feel. The dreamlike cinematography was both a product of its time and an intentional choice by the director to make the audience feel as uneasy as the characters within the film. While the main character, played well by Candace Hilligoss, is clearly in exterior locations for a good portion of the movie, there is a flatness to her surroundings that contributes to the feeling of nothing around her being real. It is as if she is a 3D person walking through a stage set, even during times in which she clearly is not. The occasionally ripple-y visuals only add to the surreal visual atmosphere, and the times in which she is ignored by everyone around her creates a lonely, isolated feeling, even with dozens of people mulling about.
An excellent score filled with scary organ music reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera, the dreamlike visuals are accompanied deftly by dreamlike audio dubbing and that haunting score. I guess it's not hard to have creepy organ music throughout the film when the main character is an organist. The audio dubbing was definitely subpar during parts of the film, but it tended to have a more disorienting effect than it usually would; usually, bad dubbing takes you right out of the movie and makes you feel like you're watching schlocky nonsense. Not so in Carnival of Souls.
The director, Herk Harvey, was incredibly prolific during his time. He made roughly a billion shorts in the industrial/educational industry. However, he only made one actual movie... and, bizarrely, a single episode of Reading Rainbow. If there is anything that says horrific psychological horror, it's Georgie La Forge and books
You there... yes, you! YOUR soul belongs to me!
Carnival of Souls is an incredibly influential film and perhaps the first psychological horror movie ever made. George Romero has stated that this film was the inspiration for NoTLD. The makeup effects on the carnival inhabitants is clearly the inspiration for Romero's walking dead. Its lineage also counts Final Destination among its direct descendants. You can also plainly see the stylistic choices reverberate through films like Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and other black and white horror films of the era. It was also among a scant handful of horror films released by Criterion, a huge honor for a horror movie. It's fairly boring as older movies can often be, but it's important and a foundational horror classic, and that can't be overstated.
While it is commonplace now to see psychological horror and to consider things from an unreliable narrative perspective, you can't help but feel, when watching this movie in modern day times, that a lot of what makes the main character's perspective questionable is because she is a woman in the 60's. One character actually tells her that "hysteria won't help anything," and it is unclear whether this is an indictment by the director on male views of women during the era or if it is simply an indictment on women during the era. Women are, of course, the more emotional sex, and surely this woman was just imagining all of this, right? Viewed from a modern perspective, the movie is perhaps even more impactful than it was during the time in which it was made; after all, if a woman was experiencing what Hilligoss was experiencing today, we would be rushing to call an exorcist.
Who this movie is for: Classic horror fans, Zombie lovers, Carnies
Bottom line: While the film feels like an especially ambitious episode of The Twilight Zone, this is a must watch for every true horror lover, and its importance in film history makes it a must for general film buffs as well. Disorienting camerawork, a dizzying score, and groundbreaking visual effects result in a hell of a ride, but a fairly altogether boring one. Give it a watch and see what you think.