Carnival of Souls

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Shot in three weeks by a guy on a break from his real job, 1962’s Carnival of Souls is a spooky thriller about a woman who somehow survives a fatal car accident then drifts around for the rest of the movie like a restless spirit in a too-concrete world.

It’s been described as something like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone – something like the Black Mirror of its day – which is largely down to the spectral, evocative organ score by Gene Moore, as well as the gotcha reveal at the finish, which won’t gotcha anyone who’s consuming as much media product as 21st-century audiences do.

Director Herk Harvey said he was after “the look of Bergman and the feel of Cocteau”, ambitions largely achieved in his funny little tale about Mary (a wide-eyed and vulnerable Candace Hilligoss), who goes into a river as the result of a Fast and Furious-style road race gone wrong, somehow emerges as the only survivor of the accident and then takes a job as a church organist in a small town.

Here this standoffish woman is pursued by two men. One is tongue-lolling John (Sidney Berger), who also rooms in the same dwelling house as Mary. The other is a strange, pale character with dark circles around his eyes, who pops up when Mary is least expecting and whom no one else can see. “The Man” is played by Harvey himself.

Also afflicting Mary are moments where no one in her vicinity seems to be able to see her, accompanied by a loss of hearing – she is deaf to the world or it is deaf to her. Mary can’t work out what it all means, though once these moments have passed her life carries on as normal.

Mary with shrink Dr Samuels
Mary with Dr Samuels trying to shake some reason into her

Harvey is shooting on a budget of next-to-nothing and achieves a lot. Some of this is down to ingenuity – Mary’s regular bouts of deafness means he can shoot what’s almost a silent movie here and there – and some of it is down to bravado, shooting in public spaces, guerrilla-style when he can. Essentially, if Mary is anywhere with a good number of other people in the scene, they didn’t realise they were going to be in a film.

Another plus is the use of the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, once-glorious centrepiece of a grand funfair, which Harvey uses for two key scenes, and which justifies Gene Moore’s jaunty carnivalesque haunted-organ score.

Harvey’s day job was with Centron, a maker of educational and manufacturing films, and he’s got an eye for materiality that comes from spending a lot of time on life’s nuts and bolts. The dashboard of Mary’s car, the pipes and stops on the organ she plays, gas stations, the way roads wind and bend, the abandoned funfair, Harvey has a documentarian’s eye for them all.

Echoing this practical slant is shrink Dr Samuels (Stan Levitt), the man of reason abruptly introduced to put a scientific angle on a supernatural story and the film’s only badly handled element.

Maybe Harvey should have gone on to make more features, like Robert Altman, who had a similar beginning at the unglamorous end of the film biz. Harvey’s assistant director on Carnival of Souls was Reza Badiyi, who’d done second unit work on Altman’s feature debut, 1957’s The Delinquents. By 1962 Altman had worked for Alfred Hitchcock and was busy directing high-profile TV series. Harvey must have wondered, talking to Badiyi, if he’d soon be following suit. But it was not to be. He was still at Centron when he retired in 1985.

It was only after he’d retired that Harvey’s 1962 film started to pick up a head of steam. Today it’s the sense of mood and of place that critics tend to single out. I’d not realised this going in, but the great German film-maker Christian Petzold (watch everything he’s ever done and you won’t be disappointed) borrowed quite a lot, certainly the mood and most of the plot, for his spooky, supernatural drama Yella. They’d make a great double bill – they’re both only 80-something minutes long.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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