Carnival of Souls
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|Carnival of Souls|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Herk Harvey|
|Produced by||Herk Harvey|
|Written by||Herk Harvey|
|Music by||Gene Moore|
|Edited by||Bill de Jarnette|
|Distributed by||Herts-Lion International Corp.|
Carnival of Souls is a 1962 American independent horror film written, produced, and directed by Herk Harvey, and starring Candace Hilligoss. Its plot follows Mary Henry, a young woman whose life is disturbed after a car accident. She relocates to a new city, where she finds herself unable to assimilate with the locals, and becomes drawn to the pavilion of an abandoned carnival; director Harvey also appears in the film as a ghoulish stranger who stalks her throughout.
Filmed in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Carnival of Souls was shot on a budget of USD$33,000, and Harvey employed various guerrilla filmmaking techniques to finish the production. It was Harvey's only feature film, and did not gain widespread attention when originally released as a double feature with The Devil's Messenger in 1962.
Set to an organ score by Gene Moore, the film has been contemporarily noted by critics and film scholars for its cinematography and foreboding atmosphere. The film has a large cult following and is occasionally screened at film and Halloween festivals, and has been cited as a wide-ranging influence on numerous filmmakers, including David Lynch and George A. Romero.
Mary Henry is riding in a car with two other young women when some men challenge them to a drag race. As they speed across a bridge, the women's car plunges over the side into the river. The police spend three hours dragging the murky, fast-running water without success. Mary miraculously surfaces, but she cannot remember how she survived.
Mary then drives to Utah, where she has been hired as a church organist. At one point, she can get nothing on her car radio but strange organ music. While she is speeding along a deserted stretch of road, a ghoulish, pasty-faced figure (never identified, but called "The Man" in dialogue and played by director Herk Harvey, uncredited) replaces her reflection in the passenger window and stares at her. When The Man suddenly appears in front of her, she swerves off the road into a shallow ditch. After a pause she manages to maneuver the car from the ditch back onto the road and continues. Along her journey she glimpses at different intervals a large, abandoned pavilion sitting all by itself on the shores of the Great Salt Lake; it seems to beckon to her in the twilight. At a gas station, the attendant tells her the pavilion was first a bathhouse, then a dance hall, and finally a carnival before shutting down.
In town, Mary rents a room from Mrs. Thomas; John Linden, the only other lodger, wants to become better acquainted with the blonde newcomer, but she is not interested. That night, she becomes upset when she sees The Man downstairs in the large house and retreats to her room. Mrs. Thomas, who brings her some food, says she did not pass anyone.
Soon, Mary begins experiencing terrifying interludes when she becomes invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world, as if she simply is not there. When The Man appears briefly in front of her in a park, she flees, right into the arms of a Dr. Samuels. He tries to help her, even as he acknowledges he is not a psychiatrist.
Her new employer, the minister (Art Ellison), is put off when she declines his suggestion of a reception to meet the congregation. When she practices for the first time, she finds herself shifting from a hymn to eerie music. In a trance, she sees The Man and others of his ilk dancing at the pavilion. The minister, hearing the strange music, denounces it as "Profane! Sacrilege!" and insists upon her resignation.
Terrified of being alone, Mary agrees to go out on a date with Linden. When they return home, he smooth-talks his way into her room, but when she sees The Man in the mirror, she becomes upset and tries to tell Linden what has been happening to her. He leaves, believing she is losing her mind.
After going back to visit Samuels' office, Mary believes she has to go to the pavilion. There, she is attacked by The Man and his fellow ghouls. Mary tries frantically to escape, at one point boarding a bus to leave town, only to find that all the passengers are ghouls. It is just a nightmare; she awakes in her room in Thomas' boarding house. In the end, she is drawn back to the pavilion, where she finds her tormentors dancing. A pale version of herself is paired with The Man. When she runs away, they chase her out onto the beach. She collapses, and they close in.
The minister, the doctor and the police go to the pavilion to look for her. They find her footprints in the sand – the only ones – but they end abruptly, and there is no other trace of her.
Back in Kansas, the car is located and pulled from the river. Mary's body is in the back seat alongside those of two of the other women.
- Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry
- Frances Feist as Mrs. Thomas
- Sidney Berger as John Linden
- Art Ellison as Minister
- Stan Levitt as Dr. Samuels
- Tom McGinnis as Organ factory boss
- Forbes Caldwell as Organ factory worker
- Dan Palmquist as Gas station attendant
- Bill De Jarnette as Mechanic
- Steve Boozer as Chip
- Pamela Ballard as Dress saleslady
- Herk Harvey as "The Man" (the main ghoul)
Harvey was a director and producer of industrial and educational films based in Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked for the Centron Corporation. While returning to Kansas after shooting a Centron film in California, Harvey developed the idea for Carnival of Souls after driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, Utah. "When I got back to Lawrence, I asked my friend and co-worker at Centron Films, John Clifford, who was a writer there, how he'd like to write a feature," Harvey recalled. "The last scene, I told him, had to be a whole bunch of ghouls dancing in that ballroom; the rest was up to him. He wrote it in three weeks."
In New York City, Harvey discovered then-twenty-year-old actress Candace Hilligoss, who had trained with Lee Strasberg, and cast her in the lead role of Mary Henry. Hilligoss had been offered a role in the Richard Hilliard-directed horror film Psychomania (1963), but opted for the role in Carnival of Souls. She stated that at the time, she took the role as a "take-the-money-and-run type of situation"; she was paid approximately $2,000 for her work in the film.
Harvey shot Carnival of Souls in three weeks on location in Lawrence and Salt Lake City. Harvey took three weeks off from his job at Centron in order to direct the film, starting with an initial production budget of $17,000. The $17,000 cash budget was raised by Harvey asking local businessmen if they were willing to invest $500 in Harvey's production. The other $13,000 of the total $30,000 budget was deferred. Harvey was able to secure the rental of the Saltair Pavilion for $50, and several other scenes, such as the scene featuring Mary in the department store, were shot guerrilla style, with Harvey paying off locals to allow the crew to quickly film. Hilligoss described the filming process as brisk, with the cast and crew seven days a week.
Harvey employed techniques he had learned in his work on industrial films in order to limit production costs. There was not enough money for a process screen to create a rear projection effect, which was the method typically used at that time to create the impression that a scene was taking place inside a moving car, by combining footage shot inside a static car with separate footage of a moving background. Instead, Harvey used a battery-powered hand-held Arriflex camera to film the shots inside moving cars, removing the need for compositing. The Arriflex, which was at that time more often used by cameramen filming newsreel footage, also allowed them to use a moving camera in other scenes without the need for gear like dollies or cranes. Harvey's assistant director was Reza Badiyi, a young Iranian immigrant who was just beginning his film work in the States. At this time, Reza had been second unit director on one other film, Robert Altman's directing debut The Delinquents, but would go on to make (amongst other notable work) some of the most well-known, iconic series openings and montages, including; Hawaii Five-O, Get Smart, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The shot where the face of The Man appears in the car window was accomplished through the use of an angled mirror placed on the far side of the window. The scene at the start of the film where the car goes off the bridge and into the river was filmed in Lecompton, Kansas. The town did not charge a fee for the use of the bridge, only requiring the film crew to replace the bridge's damaged rails once they were done filming. This was done, at a cost of $38 for the new rails.
Carnival of Souls features an original organ score by composer Gene Moore. Film and music scholar Julie Brown comments on the score, noting: "The organ is one of the spectral presences in Carnival of Souls, summoning up, or being summoned up by, the various allusions in the film to cinema's past." Screenwriter John Clifford has stated that the locations Harvey chose for the film (particularly the Saltair Pavilion, and the grand church organ) influenced the decision to use an organ score. The onscreen depiction of the organ played by Mary was implemented by Harvey to add to the film's "Gothic look."
An original soundtrack album for Carnival of Souls was released in 1988, featuring Gene Moore's original musical score.
Carnival of Souls had its world premiere at the Main Street Theatre in Lawrence, Kansas, in September 1962. While the US release of Carnival of Souls failed to include a copyright on the prints, automatically placing them in the public domain, the foreign release marketed by Walter Manley did contain a copyright card and was protected for overseas sales. The 35 mm theatrical prints were cut by Herz-Lion to 78 minutes which trimmed the camera original. However, the 16 mm television copies were printed complete and individually cut by each station to fit their time slot, which is why they vary in length.
WOR-TV in New York City used to broadcast the film intact in a late night timeslot in the sixties. The scenes cut by the theatrical distributor include a scene where Mary stops at a gas station and discusses the carnival building with the attendant, a longer dialogue sequence between the minister and carpenter and an extra scene where the doctor talks to the landlady. In 1989, the film was screened at festivals across Europe and the United States, affording it renewed public interest, and it has subsequently appeared at numerous Halloween film festivals.
Prints of Carnival of Souls vary in length from 78 minutes in theatrical release to 84 minutes in the original cut. While some sources have erroneously listed the film at a 91-minute-runtime, Michael Weldon stated in The Psychotronic Video Guide to Film that the original theatrical cut of the film ran approximately 80 minutes; he also stated that the director's cut, which runs 84 minutes, is "the best and most complete version we'll ever see."
Carnival of Souls went largely unnoticed by critics upon its initial release, and would receive "delayed acclaim" in the ensuing decades, receiving numerous arthouse screenings in 1989 in conjunction with the Halloween season. It has since become regarded by many film schools as a classic, often praised for its lighting and sound design, in which "sight and sound come together... in a horrifying way." Some scholars, such as S.S. Prawer, consider Carnival of Souls more an art film than a straightforward horror film. The Time Out film guide commended the film's "striking black-and-white compositions, disorienting dream sequences and eerie atmosphere," adding that the film "has the feel of a silent German expressionist movie. Unfortunately, so does some of the acting, which suffers from exaggerated facial expressions and bizarre gesturing. But the mesmerising power of the carnival and dance-hall sequences far outweighs the corniness of the awkward intimate scenes."
Complex magazine ranked Carnival of Souls number 39 on its list of the 50 scariest movies ever made. Leonard Maltin gave Carnival of Souls two-and-a-half out of four stars, calling the film an "eerie" and "imaginative low budget effort." Critic Roger Ebert likened the film to a "lost episode of The Twilight Zone," noting it possessed an "intriguing power." Joe Brown of The Washington Post remarked upon the film's cinematography, writing: "Harvey's camerawork gives a new twist to the word "deadpan," making the most mundane places and people imaginable seem like ghastly hallucinations, and the director shows a flair for elegantly employing existing locations and lighting for maximum disorientation value." Stephen Holden of The New York Times saw the 1989 screening at the Fantasy Festival and wrote: "What has earned Carnival of Souls its reputation is the director's knack for building a mood of fatalistic angst."
TV Guide awarded Carnival of Souls a score of three stars out of four. Praising the film's atmosphere, acting, and eerie score, calling it, "A chilling ghost story with artistic pretensions."  Film Reel.com gave Carnival of Souls a positive review, praising the film's atmosphere, slow building tension, and disturbing visuals. Wes R. from Oh the Horror! praised the film stating, "Carnival of Souls is a film every horror fan must experience. Even if you can’t get into older, black and white films (what kind of horror fan are you?) I implore you to give this one a shot". Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 85%, based on 33 reviews, with a rating average of 7.3/10. The film has gained a cult following since its release and is now considered a low-budget classic.
The Criterion Collection edition of the film contains a 78-minute theatrical version of the film and an 84-minute director's cut. The Legend Films edition of the film contains both colorized and black-and-white versions of the aforementioned director's cut and an audio commentary track by comedian Michael J. Nelson, a former writer and host of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In 2016, The Criterion Collection re-released the film on DVD and Blu-ray.
In 2012, the Academy Film Archive restored Carnival of Souls. The film has been named as a precursor to the works of various filmmakers, including David Lynch, George A. Romero, Lucrecia Martel  and James Wan.
Negotiations with the writer of Carnival of Souls, John Clifford, and the director, Herk Harvey, led in 1998 to a remake directed by Adam Grossman and Ian Kessner and starring Bobbie Phillips. The remake has little in common with the 1962 film, borrowing little more than the revelation at the end. Sidney Berger, who had appeared in the original film as John Linden, appeared in a cameo in the remake. The remake followed the story of a young woman (Phillips) and her confrontation with her mother's murderer. The film makers had asked for Candace Hilligoss, the star of the first film to also appear, but she declined, feeling that Clifford and the filmmakers of the remake had shown disrespect to her in initiating the film without consulting her or considering her treatment for a sequel to the 1962 version. The remake was marketed as Wes Craven Presents 'Carnival of Souls'. It received negative appraisals from most reviewers and did not manage to secure theatrical release, going direct-to-video.
- List of American films of 1962
- List of cult films
- List of ghost films
- List of films in the public domain in the United States
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- Introduction to Carnival of Souls an essay by John Clifford at the Criterion Collection
- Carnival of Souls an essay by Bruce Kawin at the Criterion Collection