Thursday, April 22, 2010

REVIEW: Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls
Director: Herk Harvey
Year 1962

Carnival of Souls is a dreamlike and surreal black and white horror film directed by Herk Harvey. This classic film really is beautiful, and with using black and white, we are given a moody piece full of fantastic imagery and tension filled horror. The style works to enhance the creepy tone of the film and helps us get lost in this sorted tale of mysteries unknown. Carnival of Souls haunting story starts out with a drag race gone bad, where our main character named Mary Henry, played by a ghostlike Candace Hilligoss, and her group of friends, end up getting into a horrible car accident as they tumble off a bridge and plunge into an icy river below.

Look out below!

It seems that there are no survivors, that is until hours later when Mary silently emerges from the waters completely unscathed, giving her rescuers quite a shock in the process. The shot of her coming out of the water and walking towards the camera is rather unsettling and it is a great introduction to the amazing imagery that we will be treated to later on in the film. Herk Harvey really sets the tone right off the bat and nothing ever seems real once the car accident occurs. We are left in a world that feels more like a dream, thanks to the haunting images that Mary's character is subjected to as the film moves along.

 Mary thought it would be a nice time for a swim.

After the accident, Mary is offered a job as an organist at a church in another town and her life seems to be coming together, other then the fact that she begins seeing strange figures appear out of thin air and then vanish as quickly as they came. Aside from believing she is losing her mind, Mary takes the job and sets off to her new home. On the way, we are treated to some unusual and creepy moments that really up the anti for what we are to experience as Mary's visions get stronger and bolder. The shots inside of the car as Mary drives along at night are shot with an expert eye and really look spectacular in this black and white format. There's always something classy about black and white and it sets such a nice tone for a haunting story like the one in Carnival of Souls.

It's no fun playing eye spy by yourself.

There's a few very special moments while she is driving the car that really stand out in my mind. We are given a morbid shot of a ghastly face watching Mary from the passenger side window. What makes this images so disturbing is the fact that the car is moving along at a good pace and the figure is just hovering there at the window. The way the man is lit also effects the impact of the shot. A glowing light shines up into his face as he locks eyes with Mary's character, causing her to scream out in shock. It's a great moment in the film and it's one of many.

Thanks for the ride lady!

One of the other memorable moments happen later on her journey to her new job. She is traveling down a pitch black deserted road, when a figure appears in front of her, staring at her with his dead eyes. She swerves to get out of the man's way and she manages to avoid contact with the strange man, but when checking in her rear view mirror, the man is nowhere to be seen. This chilling moment will not be the last time we see that apparition, because he seems to lead the charge in driving our main character crazy. He pops up many times throughout this film and the makeup effects for this creep of a character is subtly done, but quite effective in bringing about a disturbing looking antagonist.

What a creep.

What really sets the atmosphere in this film is its use of locations. A large portion of the film is shot at an abandoned amusement park named Saltair Pavilion that's located just outside Salt Lake City and this place is ripe for a ghostly tale to be told within its grounds. The visuals that it provides are astounding and the emptiness of the old place is quite eerie. Mary's character is strangely drawn to this location and she passes by it on her way to her new job. Curiously she investigates this intriguing place, not knowing why she is drawn to it or who may be drawing her there.

The eerie Saltair Pavilion can be seen in the distance.

The location of the Saltair Pavilion really is a beautifully obscure location and there are so many visually striking aspects to the parks grounds. Harvey takes full advantage of these stunning views in his filming and they really pay off for giving the overall haunting feel of the film's story. The parks grounds consist of grand ballrooms, strange fun houses, and broken down boardwalks, all located on a pier at the edge of an almost dried up lake bed. The feeling of death surrounds the place and encumbers it in a blanket of nostalgia provided by the many lives that have passed through this place over the years. The location has a history and you can feel it in every frame. It's wonderful to explore this unique location with Mary and it gives the film both a sense of mystery and adventure.

Just one of the many interesting things you'll find at Saltair Pavilion.

The sense of paranoia in Mary's character never really lets up as the film progresses. More and more, her visions begin to drive her mad as they show up at the most random times and even appear when she is surrounded by groups of people. The director never gives us too much information on whether this is all in her head or if there is in fact a sinister force after her, and I think the ambiguity of it makes it all the more interesting. What also makes this concept work is the fact that she is a fish out of water in a sense. She's new to the area and you can feel that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what is around the next corner and the fact that she is out of her element and thrust upon a new world.

A sinister shadow enters the room.

At the peak of Mary's visions, she sees a great number of these strange people in groups watching her every move. The scene where Mary gets onto a bus and all of the passengers are ghouls is a remarkably memorable and unsettling scene, as the group of ghost-like beings stare directly at the camera and inherently at the audience as well.  It's effective and gives the viewer a chance to relate to Mary's perspective of always being watched by these voyeuristic beings. This maddening moment is quite compelling and gives us an out of body experience as we see through the terrified eyes of Mary.

Just another ordinary senior citizens bus trip to the casino.

There are a few instances where the director infuses a technique of warping the inside of the frame as if the film is slipping into a dream. Each time this happens, Mary's character is thrust into a world where she is not noticed by the other living inhabitants of the town. She screams at them to get their attention, but no one acknowledges her presence. Each time it happens it's a treat to behold as she desperately tries anything to draw the attention of the clueless locals. It is rather unique to be able to isolate the character yet still have them running through a crowded street. These sequences all have a very eerie quality to them and every one of them sticks out as a high point of the film. The director emphasizes this frustration that Mary goes through by not being heard, with a low angle shot of her running through town, desperate to get back to her apartment. The intensity of these shots are impressive and the acting by Candace is top notch.

A desperate shot of a sympathetic Mary as
she tries hopelessly, yet in vein, to be heard.

Eventually, the pull of the abandoned carnival becomes too much for Mary to resist and she journeys back to the haunting location, aimlessly walking its grounds as she searches for something not known to her. Once again, the location lends itself to a plethora of interesting angles and surreal vistas and through this second visit we are given a deeper glimpse into the amazing architecture of the place. The look of the film at this point has moved to a dismal array of shadows and vignette like compositions, stripping away the contrast of the films previous shots and projecting it in a dream like haze. These last few sequences are beautifully surreal and it feels as if this film has slipped into the cinematic time period that this carnival had once thrived in. It's a great throwback to those magical times, yet the director also adds a foreboding sense of doom in the way he shoots these long desolate shots of Mary wandering the grounds.

Mary's back again at the happiest place on earth.

As the director catapults us back in time, we are then presented with a morbidly dysfunctional flashback of sorts, of all of the strange people that Mary has met during the course of this film, as they dance across the ballroom in a strange waltz that really is entrancing. The movements of the dancers are both mechanical and ghostlike as they move to the rhythm of the old time music. One of the creepy moments of this sequence is when they all turn at the same time to look at Mary, then she is suddenly transported into the dance and is hand in hand with the main ghoul as he begins to howl in her face, spinning her around the room. It's creepy to say the least and a moment that definitely won't be forgotten come the movies closing credits.

The enchantment under the sea dance, minus Marty McFly.

The concluding scene is a terrifying one, with the group of dancers turning on our main character and chasing her out of the ballroom and out into the open terrain of the salt flats. It's hauntingly filmed and the style resembles that of the artistically surreal visuals of the 1920's German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This ending brings all of the paranoia that proceeded in this eerie story to come crashing down in a heap of decayed bodies as the strangers huddle around Mary's fallen body and begin to smother her with every approaching inch as they gather in. You feel the weight of their bodies as they press inwards and it's excruciating to experience and quite visceral in its execution. It's a perfect ending to a classic film that relies on a heavy atmospheric tone to solidify its terrifying presence and impactful conclusion. I won't give away the overall meaning of the film and what we find out at the bitter end of this piece, but the director has hinted at the main characters inevitable destination for quite some time throughout the film. It's all executed to perfection and it's breathtaking to watch as each horrible event unfolds for Mary to react too.

Run Mary! Run home and don't stop till you get there!

Carnival of Souls is an instant classic and one that needs to be experienced at least once in your cinematic loving life. It brings so many memorable moments to the forefront of horror cinema and casts such a haunting spell on its audience that it overwhelmingly deserves the praise that it has received in its run over the years. The film is in a league of its own and it really delivers the atmosphere that this genre thrives on. I highly recommend this gem of a movie to anyone that loves haunting stories that bring a surreal visual eye to its composition and an uncompromised level of respect to its horror fused conceptualization. Check this flick out.

5 out of 5 stars     A Classic Horror Film That Will Haunt You.


  1. I totally agree this is one of the best pure horror movies ever made, and that fact it was done without so much as a drop of blood solidifies the genius of it. The atmosphere and creepy visuals, and the juxtaposition of a carnival as a cenotaph, touch on our most private fears, such as abandonment, loneliness and betrayal. It also looks so Gothic now in its glorious black-and-white photography, much the same as the original 'Night of the Living Dead.' Unforgettable, harrowing, this is a perfect example of psychological, not physical, horror. I consider this movie a must-see.

  2. Thanks for checking out the review guys. Yeah, this film is quite a masterpiece and it has such a powerful atmosphere to it that really sticks in your mind long after watching. Classic stuff.

  3. I'm glad I found this blog, great stuff!

    Amazing Carnival of Souls review!

    Interesting facts about the director Herk Harvey on IMDB. He saw the location which gave him the creeps. A couple of weeks later, he wrote a script around it. It took him 2 weeks to film it. Amazing! John Carpenter's "The Fog" happened much in the same way.

    I love the fact that the last credited directing job is a Reading Rainbow episode in 1983!

    Thanks for reminding me of the brilliance of this film.

  4. Dave.....Thanks! I love the idea of crafting a story around a certain location. I didn't realize that Carpenter did the same thing with The Fog. Was it the town that Carpenter focused on our the lighthouse?

    Oh and Reading Rainbow rocks! Hahaha. Thanks for checking out the blog.

    2D.... Interesting choice to convert Carnival of Souls to 3D. Wonder how it would change the feel of the film.

  5. Hi Jay, It's nearly completed. I havent watched the whole film yet but the clips I've seen make you feel more immersed in the environment and makes it feel even more spookier IMO.

  6. Excellent! Nothing wrong with feeling more immersed in the environment. Looking forward to seeing the final look of the film.