Now THAT’S what I call eerie 1

It’s a Monday morning, and I am never at my best – so instead of coming up with something deep and useful, I thought I would carry on down the path of nostalgia that I started walking on yesterday, and talk about one of my favourite films, Carnival Of Souls.

So, you’re a producer/director of industrial and educational films, and you decide to make a horror film. Not exactly the best of credentials, when you think about it. If you went to a ‘proper’ film producer you would be unlikely to get past the security guard at the entrance, let alone get to pitch your idea to the man himself. The only way to get this done would be to make the film yourself.

And that is exactly what Herk Harvey did, and put up an estimated $33,000 of his own money to make his ambition happen. And what did he eventually produce with that money? Carnival of Souls, one of the eeriest and most atmospheric films I have ever had the pleasure of watching.

I first came across the film on a late night TV showing, courtesy of Alex Cox’s Moviedrome. I had been aware of the film for a while before then, after seeing references to it in my favourite magazine at the time, Fangoria. Plus I had seen still images of The Man in ads in the same magazine. I was certainly intrigued, but simultaneously wary of any hyperbole attached to the film.

So, what’s it all about? (Those of you familiar with the film can skip this bit…) The plot is centred around Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young organist, who gets challenged by a group of boys in a car to a drag race. While the two vehicles hare across a bridge, Mary’s car gets nudged off it, plunging her and her female companions into the river below. Somehow, she is the sole survivor, walking unexpectedly up the bank after a search had failed to locate her. The other girls in the car died when the vehicle hit the river below.

And from that point on things get weirder and more frightening. Mary takes a job in Salt Lake City as a church organist, and while driving there she passes an old abandoned pavilion, to which she feels strangely attracted. Not long afterwards she encounters The Man (played by Mr Harvey himself), when his image replaces her reflection in a mirror. Gradually, that image begins to haunt her more and more regularly, and there are also times when, most frighteningly, she herself begins to fade out of life altogether as if she wasn’t there, when those who surround her fail to acknowledge her existence, even when she stands right in front of them.

And so the dislocation she experiences gets more and more acute, until she finally finds herself at the pavilion she passed on her way to Salt Lake City, where she finally encounters the ghoulish Man who has been dogging her footsteps. And, right at the end, we finally get to learn the truth behind what’s been happening.

I am not going to reveal everything about the film because there may be some out there who have never seen it. To my mind, however, it’s a tour de force of atmospheric film-making, the strangeness only emphasised by the fact it’s shot in b&w. From the moment Mary is pitched over the side of the bridge and then, a few hours later, comes stumbling up the river-bank, you can just feel that something is awry here. That sense of displacement and dislocation only increases as the film progresses, as the distance between Mary and real-life streches out.

And the setting of the abandoned pavilion makes it even more unsettling and otherworldly. The place takes the role of a bridge between this plane of existence, and the hellish shade-filled world of The Man. Adding to the air of uneasiness is the magnificent theatre organ score by Gene Moore. The viewer is drawn in to the paranoia and confusion experienced by Mary, as she struggles to make sense of what is going on around her. Harvey effectively portrays what she’s experiencing by using simple tricks, like having the characters around her not ‘see’ her and also by cutting all sound. There is also an excellent scene where Mary starts playing hymns on an organ that slowly metamorphoses into atonality and dischord, signalling that she’s making a transition from here to somewhere else, a somewhere that’s considerably less wholesome and reassuring.

The Man never speaks during any of the encounters and always appears as a pale-faced ghoul. For me, the sequences where he and the other spectres are lying silently in a pool, eventually rising slowly out of the water and then beginning to dance is a magnificent example of delineating horrific, terrifying imagery on-screen without needing to use gore or violence. Accompanied by the bizarre organ music, it is extremely shiver-inducing.

If ever you get the chance to watch this film, then do so. Okay, some of you out there may feel that it’s dated and very redolent of its era, and perhaps the dénouement is obvious once the end is revealed. That’s not the point here. It’s the art with which Harvey has constructed the film, his slow piling on of the mysterious confusion and distress in Mary’s life, and that masterful use of the pavilion at the end and the sequences fimed therein that mark this out from many films of both then (with the possible exception of Robert Wise’s The Haunting) and now. It was remade in 1998, but I haven’t seen it so I can’t pass judgement, but from what I have gleaned it wasn’t even given a theatrical release and went straight to video, even though Wes Craven’s name was attached to it. That isn’t a good sign in my book.

In its own way, Carnival of Souls is a testament to an ambition nurtured by a man who, I don’t think, ever thought that it would ever garner the critical appraisal and cult following it has since gained. It’s also a reminder that sometimes the most affecting and successful things are nothing more than the result of pure accident and fortuitous timing. Even so, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could ALL do just one thing, like Harvey did, that would leave such an indelible mark behind. Essential viewing.

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5 Responses to “Now THAT’S what I call eerie 1”

  1. I love this film. Like you, I’d seen it mentioned in Fango but missed the Moviedrome show – in the end, Mark Samuels lent me his VHS. Certainly, by then (around 2000/01), it had dated badly and the plot/ending has been used in lots of weaker films since, but thre was something about this that really gripped me. It’s slow, almost dreamlike, the cast aren’t who you think they are and the locations – well, the locations are absolutely fantastic.

    Terrific film, pity he didn’t do too much afterwards (and yes, apparently the Craven was dreadful but, like you, his name often doesn’t inspire me to watch a film).

    Nice essay, Simon.

    • Thanks Mark… this film epitomises the kind of horror I like above all… yes, I do like the gory and violent stuff, but that’s purely because of the visceral thrill, and the chance to exorcise a bad mood – psychological horror, where you have to fill in the bits yourself, does a far more effective job of generating thrills andd shivers than showing everything…. at least, that’s what I think….

      Might drag up some other films to talk about…

  2. Great job, Simon…. I picked up Carnival of Souls in a bargain bucket, but I confess I stole the contral idea for an episode of AFTERLIFE! Series Two, Episode One.

    • I have it hear somewhere, but I think it’s on a rotting VHS tape packed away in the garage… will get it on DVD at some point…. haven’t seen it in about five years possibly…

  3. Nice one, Simon. I stumbled across ‘Carnival of Souls’ in precisely the right way—after midnight, channel-surfing aimlessly—and there it was.

    You’re right about how atmospheric it is. People frequently use the word “atmosphere” to refer to a vague kind of vibe created by a few random details—but THIS kind of “atmosphere” is more like the scientific use of the term, like the atmosphere of a planet, something that completely surrounds you.

    I’ve always thought that there was something about the combination of stark black & white (and inexpensive) production values plus borderline-amateurish performances (as long as ALL the actors are at that level) that somehow feels immediately and overwhelmingly disturbing.

    Think of the opening minutes of the original ‘Night of the Living Dead’—the same production values just sort of immediately signal that we’re suddenly in this whole other creepy world that feels unsafe. Is it the look of old police crime-scene photos? The stunned, deer-in-the-headlights expressions of the actors real people in shock on newsreels after some kind of tragic disaster? I don’t know. But it’s a real thing, and you’ve celebrated it very well here.

    Thanks.

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