Step Right Up to CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Just One of a Macabre Menagerie of Movies at the Plaza Theatre’s October FrightFest

Posted on: Oct 16th, 2013 By:

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962); Dir. Herk Harvey; Starring Candace Hilligoss and Sidney Berger; Friday, Oct. 18 @ 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 19 @ 5:30 p.m. & 7:20 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

During the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of classic horror, a number of legendary films are being shown, including NOSFERATU, WHITE ZOMBIE, FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN. But sandwiched in there is a film that dwelled in relative obscurity for years before home video led to its rediscovery and reappraisal: Herk Harvey’s incredible CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

The film’s plot is deceptively slim. Church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) and her two girlfriends are challenged to a drag race over a rickety bridge, and plunge into the river below. While the police drag the river for the remains, Mary emerges with no knowledge of how she survived. Upon leaving the town of Lawrence, Kansas, for Utah, she starts experiencing supernatural events that grow in intensity. She sees haunting visions of a ghoulish, pasty-faced man everywhere she goes. A nearby abandoned carnival pavilion seems to be pulling her toward it. And, eventually, she begins experiencing states where she becomes literally detached from her surroundings—nobody can see or hear her. These all seem to be leading her to an inevitable fate, as she is continually beckoned to take her rightful place among the dead in the Carnival of Souls.

The bones of the story may seem familiar if you’re a fan of old-time radio or THE TWILIGHT ZONE. A similar tale was first told on THE ORSON WELLES SHOW in 1941. “The Hitch-Hiker” took place on a cross-country drive, after the narrator (Ronald, played by Welles) has a car accident following a blow-out. After getting his tire fixed, he sees the same haunting hitchhiker motioning to him at various points on his journey. Nobody he encounters sees the strange man, yet the hitcher continues to appear along his route. At a stop, he calls home only to receive the news that he never survived that accident, and realizes that the hitcher is Death himself, waiting for him to accept his fate and move on. The story was a radio staple for years, and was later adapted by Rod Serling for TWILIGHT ZONE, with Inger Stevens in the lead role of “Nan.”

The story of a person who should have died—who may, in fact, be dead as the story proceeds—is not an original one, and has been seen many times before and since CARNIVAL OF SOULS. From Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story “An Encounter at Owl Creek Bridge” to 1990’s JACOB’S LADDER and 2001’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and from 1983’s SOLE SURVIVOR to 1999’s THE SIXTH SENSE, the basic story proves to be still-fertile ground.

But few have done it as well as CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker based in Lawrence, came up with the film’s premise as he passed the then-closed Saltair Pavilion on his way to Salt Lake City. To set his film apart, he claims to have wanted to achieve “the look of a Bergman, the feel of a Cocteau.” His atmospheric lighting and high-contrast cinematography come about as close to that as one can achieve on a $33,000 budget. The film is one of those rare “dreamlike” movies that earns its name. The looming camera angles and the oppressive feeling of dread that accompanies her strange visions translate Mary’s sense of feeling trapped in some otherworldly web to the screen with incredible effectiveness. CARNIVAL’s organ score also adds to the disorienting effect of the film. The textual reason for its presence is an explicit reference to Mary’s profession, but its unconscious association is with silent film. And the intrusion of something from another time or place (the specter of death, the abandoned pavilion) into our present is one of the main conflicts that defines the atmosphere of the movie.

Lee Strasberg-trained star Candace Hilligoss also deserves strong praise, as she carries the entire weight of this film. She has the task of making the character of Mary Henry—who is extremely distancing and unsympathetic—into a character that we fear for. Hers is not a character that we immediately identify with. Everyone that reaches out to her gets pushed away (some deservedly so), and yet we eventually identify with her growing need to connect. As her supernatural experiences become more and more frequent, she suddenly finds that she needs these people. They’re at least less unnerving than that strange man she keeps seeing.

The movie was relegated to the bottom half of double bills upon release, and while late-night broadcasts inspired a small cult of film buffs to take cues from it, CARNIVAL’s quiet approach to horror kept the film from spreading far outside those numbers. It wasn’t until 1989, with the debut of the film on VHS, that people really began to take notice. New prints were struck and screened at art-houses and film festivals across the country, and Herk Harvey—who had continued to be a successful industrial movie maker and film instructor—was finally able to see his only feature film gain the kind of respect and acclaim that it had long deserved.

Herk Harvey joined the Carnival in 1996.

This is not a movie to be slept on. It’s a small, haunting masterpiece of horror cinema that was almost forgotten. It’s the kind of re-discovery that you wish would happen more often. Feel that pull? It’s the call of the Plaza, drawing you into this CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Care to dance?

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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