Carnival of Souls (1962)


(director: Herk Harvey; screenwriter: John Clifford; cinematographer: Maurice Prather; editors: Bill De Jarnette/Dan Palmquist; music: Gene Moore; cast: Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry), Herk Harvey (The Man), Sidney Berger (John Linden), Frances Feist (Mrs Thomas), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Art Ellison (The Minister), Larry Sneegas (Drag Racer); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Herk Harvey; Janus; 1962)

“A haunting ghost story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A haunting ghost story. The black and white cult film, shot in the style of German expressionism, was made for less than $100,000 (some reports say for as little as $30,000) and was shot in Lawrence, Kansas. Though let down by its slight story, poor editing, inept amateurish acting and hokey pretensions to art, there are a few things endearing about this atmospheric, eerie and moody ghost story that plays like a dream blown up into a nightmare. The scenes shot at an abandoned carnival pavilion are particularly effective, especially the finale ballroom scene where the heroine attends a dance with other dead souls. It’s cowritten (with John Clifford) and directed by Herk Harvey (“Your Junior High Days”/”Tell It Like It Is”/ “Shake Hands with Danger”), who manages despite stubbing his toes over its tiresome plot to come up with a mysterious and disturbing film. The only film he ever directed that had some merit. It comes out rather well in the scare department and it shows how a low-budget film can earn a lasting cult following if it has some hidden qualities that are appealing.

Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is the lone survivor in a car, with two other female passengers, that was accidentally nudged over a bridge and into a river while drag racing a car with two boys in it. She emerges in a state of shock from a sandbank, and is all covered with mud and not able to remember what happened. After a week passes she’s en route by car to the neighboring state of Utah to take up a job as a church organist. It’s inexplicable how she escaped death. On the drive she passes a lake where there’s a deserted amusement park on the site of a pavilion that draws an unusual interest in her. She’s also spooked by the recurrent image of a ghostly man apparition (Herk Harvey) staring at her from outside her car windows, which still haunts her as she checks into the rooming house with her Ajax toting landlady (Frances Feist). She’s soon pestered by the leering lowlife boarder across the hall, Johnny Linden (Sidney Berger, real-life speech instructor at the University of Kansas, and I hope he kept his day job–because he can’t act), and coldly rebuffs his sexual advances. At the church, she plays the organ for the first time and at first pleases her minister (Art Ellison) boss, who says “We have an organist capable of stirring the soul.” The enigmatic Mary tries to live an isolated and quiet life, and being a headstrong modern free-thinking woman doesn’t even worship in the church–looking upon her work as only a job. This, of course, upsets the minister. But Mary can’t escape seeing the same haunting vision of the man apparition wherever she goes. This leads her to become hysterical with fear and to act in a strange manner that gets her canned from the church when the minister accuses her of playing profane music. She also freaks out in the street and is offered a consultation by a shrink (Stan Levitt) who observed her strange behavior. But he finds that she resists his help. Needing someone to comfort her fears, she accepts her creepy neighbor’s offer of a date to a tawdry jukebox dance-hall but flips out when he makes advances again. He becomes upset that he’s being used by her, and deserts her. It finally dawns on Mary that she can’t connect with the world, an example of the classic textbook Outsider, who at times can relate with others but at other times she’s invisible to the world. It concludes when Mary is drawn to trespass onto the carnival grounds and discovers a “carnival of dancing souls” reaching out for her and she finds herself dancing with a phantom. Later, it all comes together like a dream, as the film returns to the site of the accident and the authorities find the submerged car with the bodies of Mary and her two girlfriends in it.

I’m sure the story would have been better critically received if it was a tightly drawn half-hour episode on a show like “The Twilight Zone,” but nevertheless it still had some unnerving moments to remind one of the subsequent creative work of the esteemed filmmakers George Romero and David Lynch. Though it must be said that the film’s originality can certainly be challenged with justification, as it’s a ripoff on the theme of Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1891) – which had been filmed the previous year as the prize-winning French short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1961).

It was remade in color in 1998, and that film was a bomb.