Herk Harvey only directed one feature film in his entire career, and it was not well received when it was first released as a B-movie in the 1960s. In fact, it took artists like David Lynch and George Romero siting Carnival of Souls as a major influence before the film started to be taken seriously by cult audiences. I am pretty lame when it comes to B-movies. I mean, I like comedies to a degree - and I can get into campy fun, but most B-movies are actually just....well....bad movies. This one is different. Here we have an example of a film that achieves its goal without needing (or being able) to resort to tropes or effects. The film now garners a variety of praise from new audiences for its ability to use suspense rather than action to strike fear into the viewer. Personally, I am pretty stoked about the opportunity to show this movie at pretty much every Halloween party that I throw from this point forward.
I mentioned that Herk Harvey only directed one feature film during his career. Though this is true, it did not make him an inexperienced director by the time he made his $33,000 magnum opus. After working with Centron Films making a variety of short industrial, educational, documentary, and government films for about ten years, Harvey started to notice that his colleagues were making extra money directing low-budget "B-movies" that were meant to be piggy-backed with a more major release and shown in theatres as a double feature. After having an epiphany while driving through Utah en route to his native Kansas, Harvey brainstormed and wrote Carnival of Souls.
The film follows a young woman named Mary (played by the Lee Starsberg-trained Candace Hilligoss) who somehow survives a drag racing accident. Mary has very little memory of the accident, but seems to be unharmed. She starts a job as an organist at a church in Salt Lake City, Utah where she also takes up a strange interest in an abandon amusement park near town, and is continuously haunted by macabre spirits. These ghouls do not talk, but their arrival introduces many questions into the action. This all leads to a climax that would be considered predictable by today's standards, but the sleek direction (meant to emulate the look of Bergman) and foreboding feel anchor Carnival of Souls and cement the film as something surprisingly fresh.
For me, this is an almost perfectly crafted horror film. It has some campy moments, it was shot on a very low budget, and it has the feel of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. The story simply follows a young lady who somehow survived a horrible accident. Sometimes simplicity is the scariest factor of them all. She is alone, and that feeling is not only palpable, but understandable. Intrigue and empathy are as effective as screenplay and directorial style when it comes to helping this film graduate from cult movie to horror masterpiece. Carnival of Souls could possibly be the most underrated B-movie film ever made. Not bad for a guy who only made one movie.
Carnival of Souls: A
*NOTE* - For a reason not known to me, Carnival of Souls is a rare example of a film where the "Director's Cut" (84mins) is actually shorter than the original release (91mins). The version that I am writing about is the 78min Criterion release.