The story of Carnival of Souls (1962) may be a chiller, but the story of its making never fails to make me smile. After World War II, Herk Harvey was a young man set to pursue a career in chemical engineering before deciding to drop out and study theater instead. After graduation and some local theater gigs in Kansas City, he took a job for a company that made educational and industrial films.
But he had ambitions. One day, driving back from California after a business trip, he passed by an old abandoned carnival outside Salt Lake City. Inspired, and with $30,000 raised from friends and colleagues, he built a horror movie around it, described by him (ambitiously) as a fusion of Bergman and Cocteau. The film didn’t take off immediately, but after 20 years of drive-ins and late night TV screenings, it became a cult classic (fans included George Romero and David Lynch).
We open with a drag race—two cars, barreling (well, going gently) across a bridge in a case of mild 60s hot-rodding. Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is a passenger, and we catch a peculiar look on her face; she is in a car with, one presumes, friends of her, yet looks so very solitary. After a terrible car accident, she emerges from the scene as the sole survivor. She tries to carry on and have an independent life, moving on her own to take a job as an organist out in Utah. But she is haunted by spirits beckoning her to a deserted fairground, where the dead rise from the salt lake and start to dance.
It ends (for the time) with a surprise ending, which most jaded modern audiences will see coming a mile away. But that jaded modern audience, if it prizes “gotcha!” twists over emotional underpinnings, is also most likely to miss the point. This eerie movie, its atmosphere afloat on cinema’s creepiest organ music, is about being terrified of loneliness but unable to connect with anyone in the land of the living. Besides, for a young woman in 1962, what does the land of the living offer besides leering creeps and stern bosses?
Some scenes look Ed Wood cheap, and others are lit and framed with startling beauty. It’s some kind of quintessentially American low-budget triumph, and it deserves its cult following. Herk Harvey stayed active but never made another feature film (his last directing credit was, curiously enough, an episode of Reading Rainbow). But for anyone who loves independent cinema, or the way cheap B-movies can touch on serious emotional ideas, it was enough.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.