Herk Harvey’s $30,000 dollar horror film Carnival of Souls (1962) is a cult-film, a low-budget, black and white shocker that spent years on cable access and in the public domain but still elicits both scares and confused looks. Whenever I mention the film at a cocktail party, I tend to get one of two responses. “Hell yes! I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas (where the flick was lensed). We watched that one all the time!” OR “Never heard of it, sorry!” The film isn’t a particularly well-constructed or well-acted yarn. Harvey and John Clifford, who began their careers making industrial films for Centron Films, didn’t have the time or resources to iron out the kinks. Yet, Carnival of Souls is a in a different league than Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958). Harvey’s film, unlike Ed Wood’s, is actually quite chilling and he is able to squeeze aesthetic blood from his low-budget turnip.
The film focuses on Mary Henry (Candance Hilligoss), a young organist who is involved in a car accident in the opening moments of the flick. Riding with a bunch of friends in a drag race, Mary Henry’s car is nudged off a bridge, into the still river below. When the car is pulled from the river, everybody but Mary Henry has perished. Mary, shaken by her near-death experience, attempts to move on with her life by accepting a job as an organist at a church in Salt Lake City. En route to her new home, she drives past a large, abandoned amusement park. The park haunts her and her obsession with it unleashes the presence of a ghost (director Herk Harvey), who spends the rest of the film haunting the young organist.
Soon after raising the specter of the ghost, Mary Henry begins to experience shifts in her reality. She finds her reflection replaced by that of the ghost. Other times, she finds that she is inaudible or invisible to the people around her. Her near-death experience has made it impossible for her to reconnect to the world around her and the dilapidated amusement park feels like her proper home. She returns to the park, after experiencing a trance-like state, in order to face off with her destiny.
Obviously, there isn’t much to the story of Carnival of Souls. The film’s plot is held together by small vignettes that are bridged by the presence of the ghost. Mary Henry seeks answers for her shifting reality, speaking to a doctor and a minister. The film doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, it doesn’t have a lot of action and, to some people, it probably plays as a pretty boring flick (thankfully, it’s shockingly brief at 78 or 83 minutes, depending on which version you watch). Moreover, there are awkward goofs that made it into the film. For instance, in the opening scene, one of the “dead bodies” in Mary Henry’s car is seen moving.
Despite these errors and the picture’s irregular form, the film succeeds in Harvey’s use of mise-en-scène, paired with the film’s cinematography by another member of Centron Films, Maurice Prather. The high-contrast, black and white images of the carnival, featuring Harvey in pancake makeup, are surprisingly effective thanks to the emphasis that the organ score by Gene Moore brings to the images. These images, along with a third-act revelation, make Carnival of Souls a brief, creepy watch on a cold October night.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.