I seem to have inadvertently taken up Tophat’s challenge to review tales of the macabre this month, which is down right odd for me given my general distaste for the genre. I think much of that has to do with the genre’s enshrinement of slasher films and other mindless, cheap tricks. But never mind that now, I’ve got a whopper for you. Carnival of Souls is an obscure film full of no-name talent which somehow manages to be disturbing with very little genuine effort. The entire focus of the film centers around a dilapidated building in Salt Lake City called the Saltair Resort. This abandoned structure really and truly is the soul, I mean sole, reason this film exists. The director Herk Harvey was just another educational film director. You know, the type that made those awful PSA’s parodied in Futurama and mocked in MST3K. He was on location for a shoot when he stumbled across the Saltair and decided he absolutely had to make a movie featuring it. This odd fun-house plays host to the dead as they return for the ball of the season.
The plot in and of itself is strange enough. A group of girls are drag racing a car load of boys when their car goes off a bridge never to be seen again. After hours of searching the rescue party finds Mary Henry stumbling out of the river, uncertain of the fate of her fellow travelers. Mary, played by the lovely Candice Hilligoss, tries to put the ordeal behind her by moving to the big city and taking a job as a church organist. But poor Mary is tortured by ghouls only seen by her and they all seem to originate from the Saltair. Not that it’s ever named in the movie. It’s briefly referred to as the pavilion by the lake.
What’s interesting is the tension and fear needed for a good horror film is not provided through gore and cheap surprises. George A. Romero may have drawn inspiration from this little known film, but it’s not the source of his violence. Nor are there any special effects to speak of, not even a drop of chocolate sauce. In fact, there is no real violence in the film at all. The most violent scene is the car crash itself. Instead the tone is driven in part by make up, but the major motivator is Gene Moore’s dark and sprawling score. Moore was a fellow Centron Corporation employee alongside Herk Harvey and most of the crew and similarly his body of work is almost exclusively contained within short PSA’s and documentaries. But in Carnival of Souls Moore uses extensive organ music to create something truly unique. From Mary’s work as an organist to the climactic scenes the foreboding pipes drive the movie forward with an amazing effectiveness. It’s a bit ironic then that I found this movie through a re-edit set to the song “Trip to the Fair” by Renaissance. An amazing band for the record. The pipes on Annie Haslam are crafted from pure gold by the hands of angels.
The emphasis on Moore’s score is intensified by long scenes devoid of dialogue. Meant to heighten the audience’s awareness of Mary’s isolation, the lack of dialogue was arguably the work of inexperienced film makers, but in practice it succeeds in drawing attention to Mary’s facial expressions and body language at key moments. In a scene in the church we see Mary practicing her music by playing a particularly emotional and ominous piece which draws her visions to the fore. Without talking we see Mary expressing greater anxiety and fear as her hands slowly take on a mind of their own at the keys and she succumbs to her nightmares. The dialogue, especially between Mary and a would-be suitor, borders on intrusion and risks distracting us from the substance of the film. In fact, the movie could be cut to a half hour short if it was converted into a completely silent film and nothing would be lost.
Apparently there is some sordid history in the distribution of Carnival of Souls which involved it being cut from its original 83 minutes down to 76 in order to double bill it at drive-in theaters. I’m rather interested in getting a copy of the Criterion Collection release so that I can see the director’s cut. The movie thrives on confusion and seeming non-sequiturs so I’m not sure what those extra minutes can add. The plot may have a clever base, but its execution is a bit sloppy at times.
Still, at an estimated budget of $33,000 Carnival of Souls is another example of the success of ingenuity over budgets. I shudder to think what a big budget studio would do this film. Talk about horror. Luckily we can ignore the 1998 remake and focus on a wonderfully odd film made by people who would have little to do with another feature film for the rest of their careers and witness the expansion of the horror genre near the dawn of the zombie. For a film that few saw, Carnival of Souls certainly had a lasting impact on the movie industry. I won’t ruin it for you, but you can guess at a few of those influences by the end.
Also, due to the aforementioned distribution issues the film is now in the public domain so we can’t be sued for doing this:
How about that? Not only do I review a movie, but I let you watch the whole thing right here.