After ranting against the current crop of horror films that have been released from our neighbours across the pond, and almost giving myself an ulcer in the process, I finally find myself in the position of reviewing a horror film that I actually like, the 1962 classic Carnival Of Souls.
At the beginning of the film our heroine, Mary, and her friends are challenged by two good ol’ boys to a drag race. In most films drag races don’t usually end well (except in Grease, unfortunately) and playing to type, this ends in disaster when Mary’s car plunges into a river. She emerges dazed and caked in mud as the only survivor.
Trying to move on with her life, she moves to a new town and takes a job as a church organist. Staying in a boarding house with a kindly landlady and the only other guest (perfectly described by the film critic Roger Ebert as a “definitive study of a nerd in lust”) who seems to have taken a shine to Mary, strange things start to happen to her.
A ghoulish figure continues to appear to Mary, seemingly out of nowhere, and when in church, she is overcome with visions and sensations that cause her to play profane music (not my words but the words of the priest who interrupts her. And priests know these things). Occasionally, she finds herself completely pulled out of reality, becoming completely invisible to all those around her. With nowhere else to turn to, she heads for the abandoned carnival on the outskirts of the town that throughout the film she has been drawn to for a final revelation.
I remember getting a copy of Carnival Of Souls on good old VHS (kids, ask your parents) years ago and instantly fell in love with it. Made by Herk Harvey on a shoestring budget in three weeks, it’s a film that was way ahead of its time. With very little in the way of special effects the film gets by on long haunting shots and a truly nerve wrecking soundtrack.
Unlike most horror movies of the time, Carnival Of Souls seems to be influenced more by European art house cinema such as Ingmar Bergman or German expressionism than the American films that proceeded it. The film has a very surreal haunting quality to it that really puts you on edge.
Because the majority of the actors are amateurs, the acting, whilst not the greatest to grace celluloid, adds a real David Lynch strangeness to the proceedings. In particular, Candace Hilligoss (and I can now hear a collective ‘who?’) as Mary has a fabulous haunted look that brings to mind Judith O’Dea as Barbara in Night Of The Living Dead.
Even with the tight budget, there are some truly remarkable shots that will stay in the memory long after the film has finished. The ghostly figures emerging from water, the Gothic shots of the carnival lit by the moon and the strange wipes that occur whenever Mary is pulled out of reality.
As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack plays a large part in getting your hair standing up. I don’t know if it’s being from Blackpool, but organ music really shits me up and it’s utilized to great effect in the film, particularly the scene where Mary, seemingly possessed, plays music from the dead. To paraphrase the Phantasm tag-line, if this scene doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.
It’s hard to review Carnival Of Souls without mentioning the ending. Although by today’s standards it doesn’t seem original, remember that the film was made over 40 years ago. It probably won’t come as a shock to anyone vaguely familiar with horror films and can probably be worked out after the first five minutes of watching the film. Hell, you can probably work out the ending just from reading my brief synopsis. Although borrowed from the short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge and then used in successful films that, if mentioned, will give the game way, in my opinion, it has never been bettered than in Carnival Of Souls.
My only criticism with the film is the transfer to DVD is very poor. Whilst the picture quality, though not brilliant, is passable, the sound when the characters are talking is abysmal. You’ll have to turn the volume right the way up just to hear what’s being said.
Carnival Of Souls was a lost classic that has slowly but surely been getting the recognition it deserves. You can see the influences in many of today’s top directors and films. For any self-respecting film fan, this should, and must, be part of your collection.
Although the special features are poor in number, just a trailer and commentary, the commentary is worth the price of the disc itself. A chat track with the writer, film critic, and personnel hero of mine, Kim Newman, and the horror writer Stephen Jones. For any cinemaphile, this is a must have. The level of information that these two spout out between them is memorising, and is hugely enjoyable.