Carnival of Souls (1962)
She was a stranger among the living.
Year of Release: 1962
Also Known As: Corridors of Evil
Running Time: 84 minutes (1:24)
Director: Herk Harvey
Candace Hilligoss ... Mary Henry
Frances Feist ... Mrs. Thomas, Landlady
Sidney Berger ... John Linden
Art Ellison ... Minister
Stan Levitt ... Dr. Samuels
Herk Harvey ... 'The Man' (uncredited)
Reza Badiyi ... Bus Ticket Customer (uncredited)
Before a carload of drowning victims can be dragged from a swollen lake bed, one of its occupants miraculously appears unscathed. Soon after, zombies only she can see, make her life a living hell. She is on the razor's edge between this and the undead's netherworld. It's an inescapable nightmare!
Carnival of Souls, remindin' us that back in the hippy generation, landlords hadda push that whole "bathing" concept pretty hard to keep their place from smellin' like the back row in a porno theater. Or maybe this particular old woman just happened to prefer clam chowder to beanie weenies, an drilled a peephole in the bathroom wall of 'er tenants' rooms so she could go on beaver safari, who knows. But speakin' of pendin' lawsuits, my attorney Cletus Rubenstein was finally able to settle outta court with Skunky Hernandez regardin' that alleged incident involvin' my TV antenna an one of his skanky old Jersey cows from a coupla months back. Cletus tried arguin' that the windstorm was an act of God an that my antenna was simply God's hand tryin' to put that freezer burnt all-beef patty out of its misery, but Judge Wrathis wouldn't go for it, an so the short version is I gotta perform 20 hours of community service tryin' to make Skunky's ranch look a little less like the 4th of July rummage sale in Goochplunk, Idaho. First thing Skunky wanted to do, aside from stand there with this look on his face like he'd just pull started a tired old lawn mower on the first try, was to connect the overflow pipe from his spring to this crater he'd dug out with a backhoe, an make 'imself a bass pond. So I figure, no big deal, we'll run some PVC pipe over from the spring an turn this hole into a mud pit where he can wallow around like Arnold Ziffle. Heck, it might even improve the place's smell a little. But oh, no, that'd be too easy. No sir, he wants it to look "natural," like a mountain stream, so I tell 'im if he wants it to look natural he's gonna hafta uncork a few million gallons of water to carve a gash cause there ain't no right angles in nature.
I thought about explainin' to 'im that this pond of his was gonna dry up quicker'n the manufacturin' job market of a first world country, but by this point he had that Martin Luther King "I have a dream" expression on his face, an there's no reasonin' with 'im when he gets like that. So I'm diggin' away, periodically decapitatin' unfortunately situated ground squirrels every few yards an thinkin' to myself that this's about the stupidest day I've had in the last two weeks, before makin' a little discovery. Seems Skunky forgot to mention the old septic tank he had buried out there; or more specifically, that it happened to be right in the path of this makeshift creek of his. Now when I say "old" I mean older'n John McCain's liver spots, an on toppa that it was rustier'n the '49 Ford Coupe chassis I like to fish off of out at Outhouse Creek, so the moment I punctured it Skunky's funkies exploded outta there like a tom cat that's been cooped up in a skunk trap all day. Depressurized crap canister aside, it was pretty funny once I'd gotten washed off in the water trough, cause Skunky'd gotten real excited thinkin' I'd struck oil until he started gettin' pelted with toilet paper shrapnel an all his cows took off for Montana. I guess they'd never seen a gastric glopola geyser either. But the important thing in all this is that I'm pretty well off the hook now that the EPA's found out about it an gotten all over Skunky like ticks on a hillbilly. I couldn'ta been out there more'n about an hour before that happened, which got me home in time to fry up my leftover rattlesnake riblets so I'd have somethin' to chew on while enjoyin' some more classic cinema.
Although, to be fair, this one certainly wasn't an instant classic. Fact is, Carnival of Souls came and went in about three minutes upon its release an pretty much owes its life to late night cable. Course, these days they show it in all the film schools an talk about how the skewed camera angles're intended to reflect man's unwillingness to explore other perspectives an all that kinda crapola so they'll sound real smart while they're tryin' to hook up with those uninhibited drama girls. But back then nobody 'sides the horror community gave two squirts about it, an it pretty much faded away until it became hip to analyze these old flicks in the late 80s an early 90s, so I'd like to take a moment now to fill you in on a few things the film snobs're too dense to take away from it. First, in the 60s, you'd hafta be a total candyass square to go see the doctor for any reason. So doctors actually hadda run around town all day lookin' for people lightheaded enough to haul back to their offices just to make enough scratch to pay their country club dues. Second, and again, back in the 60s; the Jiffy Lube guy'd actually let you stay in your car while it was up on the hydraulic lift to simulate what it'd be like in the event you ever need to compensate for a tiny wingding. The lift'd put you right about the same height as attachin' tractor tires to a 1975 Ford F-250 would, which prolly helped a lotta guys make that difficult decision to advertise their shrinky dinks. An third, when one guy paddlin' a boat can combat the river current, it's imperative that you mention three or four times how just how swift it is. Otherwise people start to get snarky.
But I'd like to clear somethin' up about this one before we get to the main event. This pertains to Candace Hilligoss' temporary shiftage into the realm of nonexistence, cause I wanna make sure everybody understands that society's refusal to acknowledge you doesn't necessarily mean you've got Deep Vein Zombosis. Realistically, bein' ignored like a "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" sign in Hogwoggle, Arkansas could be the result of any number of things. Take homeless people for instance. You've seen the way everybody picks up speed an can't seem to make eye contact with 'em, even when they're bangin' their tarnished "Princeton Class of '67" ring against the windows of yuppie car owners. Clearly, these people are not dead, it's just that most people're afraid they'll catch head lice or poverty from 'em if they roll down their windows. Course, when I drive by 'em an they see the whitetail shaped dent in my driver's side fender an my muffler draggin' they usually try givin' me money, but that's not really the point. Then you've got those weirdos who camp out on the traffic island tryin' to raise money for the Baptist church so they can hire a lawyer to work damage control for whatever Pat Robertson's said that day. They ain't dead either, an if you try ignorin' 'em, sometimes they'll climb onto the roof of your car like King Kong scalin' the Chrysler Building, where they'll proceed to stomp the entire first act from Riverdance into your luggage rack while speakin' in tongues. An don't try tellin' me you've never seen what happens to a woman who visits a bar showin' less cleavage than 'er girlfriend. Right, like she ain't even there. In certain types of bars, sometimes even the waitresses can't see 'em. So I think it's important to remember that there's no reason to panic just cause you're bein' ignored all the time. I'm not sayin' definitively that you can't possibly be a coconut cream pie-faced carnival zombie, but statistically, it's prolly just that you make people feel uncomfortable, guilty, or sick to their stomachs.
The movie begins with these guys who're so oily they're bein' trailed by a Saudi prince, challengin' some skirts to a drag race that ends when the dames eventually perpetuate the female drivin' stereotype, crash through a barrier, an wind up upside down at bottom of a river before bein' pronounced dead by the chief sturgeon. So pretty quick half the county shows up to help drag the river in hopes of acquirin' possession of the car for scrap metal, when all the sudden one of the girls (Mary) shows up stumblin' around on the sandbar with the Percodan stare of eternity like Ted Kennedy at a beach party. A coupla days later, Mary's still kinda weirded out, so she goes to the church to play the movie's entire soundtrack on the organ a few times with a cow pelvis attached to 'er face, til the minister shows up an wishes 'er good luck on 'er new organist job in Utah an tells 'er there's a lawyer from the Gaston Leroux estate outside waitin' for 'er. Mary needs a change of scenery, an she feels like she's got what it takes to make it in Utah an score a position in one of those Mormon harems, so she hops in 'er car an heads for Salt Lake. Things're goin' pretty well, even though all the radio stations're playin' the same song no matter where she's got the dial, cept pretty quick she starts seein' Cesar Romero in full Joker makeup everywhere she looks an eventually hasta swerve offa the road into a cow pasture before she turns 'im into a mound of cold cream an ends up with 'er windshield lookin' like a she got blasted by a thunderbird with irritable bowel syndrome. Now 'er car sounds like the pistons're crushin' a fanny pack fulla sea shells, but she manages to get to a gas station where she asks the attendant about the carnival she noticed off in the distance. So the attendant explains that it used to be a whorehouse before they hadda close it down after the big vee dee outbreak of '56, which is when they knocked it down an put up the carnival. Only the carnival never really got traction, cause bein' out there just reminded all the farmers about the hookers they lost in the great crotch plague an it depressed 'em so bad that the thought of ridin' the roller coaster just felt like it'd be in poor taste. Then Mary heads over to 'er boardin' house where this lady (Mrs. Thomas), who carries around an Ajax bottle all the time, shows 'er to 'er room. The next mornin', she heads over to the church to work the kinks out of 'er new organ, til the reverend tells 'er how disappointed he is that she's under 80 an gives 'er this look like he's inspectin' 'er for signs of Atheism. Fortunately, she knows 'er way around an organ, so the reverend quits bein' such a crotchety old fart an takes 'er out to see the deserted fairgrounds so Mary can stand around lookin' disappointed at the lack of unemployed evil clowns roamin' the grounds.
Then she heads home to wash the old man stink off of 'er, til 'er creepy neighbor from across the hall (John) gets 'er outta the bath an tries gettin' 'er to go out with 'im, an she ends up havin' to threaten to have Mrs. Thomas powder his French toast with Ajax in the mornin' if he don't bring the swellin' down on his wangdoodle. Only then she starts seein' Cesar in the stairwell an hasta pray for Adam West to come save 'er, til Thomas shows up with 'er dinner an wants to know why in the name of Janis Joplin's jarringly junkified jams of jumbled jabberins she's cowerin' like a middle eastern tourist in a Wyoming truck stop. Thomas explains that there ain't nobody there cept them an King Leer across the hall, but Mary's just sure that if Cesar's around then Burgess Meredith can't be far behind. The next mornin', John's outside Mary's room with 'er coffee an continental breakfast waitin' for 'er alarm to go off in hopes that she's from one of those rural rectangular states where this kinda behavior is considered "courting," rather'n "stalking" like most places. Fortunately for John she is (Kansas), an so she invites 'im in an accepts his coffee even though the likelihood of Mickey bein' present/so fine he'll blow 'er mind is almost a certainty. Then he offers to Irish up 'er coffee an tells 'er all about how he coulda played pro ball if the fascist college industrial complex hadn't expected 'im to try betterin' 'imself with education on toppa athletics, an Mary gets this look on 'er face like she wouldn't play his organ if he was Ray Charles. Once she finally gets John's sycophantic sphincter outta there she decides to go dress shoppin,' cept while she's in the changin' room the camera goes all fish-eyed an when she comes out the saleswoman, who looks like Tim Curry from Rocky Horror, just ignores 'er like the scientific consensus at a climate change summit. In fact, can't nobody see or hear 'er, an she can't hear nobody else neither, so she hasta run around like a lunatic til she comes to this elm tree in the park where everything goes back to normal for no particular reason. But then she sees Cesar again an has a freakout right in front of a shrink (Samuels), who takes 'er up to his office an tells 'er she's just havin' a bout of hysterical womanism like in the cartoons when there's a mouse an all the women have to jump on chairs an hike their skirts up to their necks. Then he asks 'er about everything from 'er relationship with 'er father to 'er toilet trainin' to try figurin' out which wires she's got crossed, til she gets it into 'er head that if she's imaginin' things it must be cause of the defunct carnival outside of town an she blows out the door to confront the Insane Clown Posse or whoever's out there screwin' with 'er brain waves.
But the carnival turns out to be a complete bust. No defeated animals who've lost the will to live, no glass eatin' midgets, not even a hygienically questionable guy with prison tattoos tryin' to pass off Doritos covered in molten Cheeto dust as nachos. Well, there's Cesar takin' a nap out in the Salt Lake, but Mary don't see 'im. So she heads back home where John's still houndin' 'er about goin' out with 'im, an she finally agrees to let 'im pick 'er up after work but tells 'im not to get too excited cause the church does weekly hymen inspections to make sure their organists are good an pure so the big guy upstairs won't start hurlin' lightnin' bolts at 'em. Unfortunately while Mary's workin' the organ, she ends up gettin' possessed by the spirit of Walter Murphy, who makes 'er play all kinda devil music while she wobbles around like a concussed #8 pin after a sound barrier shatterin' crank throw. Then she starts seein' Cesar risin' from the surf an watchin' all these guys with Misfits paint on, runnin' through the carnival in fast forward while the director's shinin' that Bela Lugosi spotlight on 'er eyeballs, an pretty quick the reverend comes upstairs an shit cans 'er for blowin' his pipes the wrong way. As if she wasn't depressed enough, now she hasta go out with John who's gettin' more'n more P.O.'d about 'er not bein' a bubble-headed Stepford Wife, til they eventually go home an he starts slobberin' all over 'er like an autistic newborn. Then she spots Cesar in the mirror an starts freakin' out like Marilyn Burns on a bad acid trip, til John finally decides he ain't quite this desperate an leaves 'er blubberin' like Drake after he'd curled up in the bottom of his shower tryin' to scrub Madonna off of 'im. The next mornin', Mary breaks 'er lease agreement like a delicate UPS package, an heads for the nearest mechanic to see if they can't get that little cookie sheet in a wood chipper noise to quit, cept about that time Cesar stops by to inquire about a pilot bearing for the clutch on his 1952 Victoria Crestline, an Mary hasta clear outta there like the Wicked Witch of the West durin' a thunderstorm. Course, now nobody'll talk to 'er anymore cause the camera lens melted like a Mr. Goodbar in the New Mexican desert again, but when she tries to take advantage of it an hop on the next bus outta town there ain't no seats available due to a statistically improbable number of mimes on the 3pm Greyhound to Tulsa. Eventually she wakes up back in 'er car an finally accepts that she's gonna have to face 'er banana cream pie-faced demons, at which point she peels outta the mechanic shop an heads out to battle the three ring jerkus one last time. Gonna stop the description here cause I don't want all the hipsters who ain't seen it yet to get bent outta shape an start hurlin' their trilbys at me the next time I go out to grab an Agony of Beefeat Burger at Mack's Stacks of Manly Snacks. Here's a link for said hipsters, or anyone else that's interested, bein' as it's in the public domain:
Alrighty, well, Carnival of Souls is pretty unique, and unquestionably ahead of its time in terms of the surreal atmosphere and the cerebral approach it takes towards the subject matter. There'd been others before it that actively worked to get into the heads of the viewing audience by using tools such as paranoia (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but Carnival of Souls is still rather unusual when compared to most other horror flicks of the era. You're never really sure what's real until the conclusion, which keeps the viewer engaged and attentive, despite the movie being somewhat of a slog in terms of the pacing. It's actually different enough that I suspect that's part of the reason it came and went so quickly upon its release, and wasn't really able to garner a following until it started showing up on late night cable. I guess it was just a little too ahead of its time for the audience, but it seems to be a bonafide cult classic these days. And on a technical level, I really don't see much wrong with it at all. Fact is, when you look at the budget ($17,000 in 1962 dollars), the fact that Herk Harvey had never directed a commercial feature before, and consider that everyone in the cast was completely unknown, the movie is one hell of an impressive achievement. Herk had directed a lot of those social guidance shorts they used to show in elementary school on days where the teacher had a real bad hangover and couldn't stand to have the lights on, but that's still a far cry from directing a feature length film. Additionally, this movie had SIX people working behind the camera, including Herk, so even if it's not really your kinda flick (which is how I feel about it), you've still gotta take your hat off to the guy for gettin' it done on a budget that small, with a crew that small, while utilizing a lot of people who'd never been involved with a movie before. It's really a shame that the movie was allowed to fall into the public domain, cause you know that when that happens none of the people who made are ever going to profit from it. And what really sucks about that is, since it flopped at the box office, Herk never got another chance to direct any more films when it's very clear to me that he's got a knack for it. My big problem with the movie is that there just isn't much action. The climax is certainly enjoyable, but it's quite a little wait to get to that point. That said, I wouldn't say that the run time is too long, because it needs that time to establish the Mary Henry character sufficiently enough for her to become sympathetic to the audience. The plot just isn't my thing, but I feel it's important to make it clear that this is strictly my personal opinion, and that this is really the kind of movie you've just got to see for yourself to form an opinion. No review is ever going to adequately explain what makes this movie the beloved cult classic that it is today, so I'll stop trying now.
Okay then, lets take a look at this thing through the watery fish-eye lens and see if it smells like smoked salmon, or a forgotten crappie lost forever under the backseat of a 1982 Datsun Hatchback. The plot I just flat out don't care for, and the premise makes my eyes glaze over. That said, the execution, and particularly the atmosphere hanging in the air throughout the movie, are very effective. The movie really knows what it wants to do and nails it, even if I personally wish it'd wanted to do something else. And for the record, when I rate each element of a movie, I rate them equally based upon execution and my own personal feelings on said aspects. So credit will be given where credit is due. The acting, for me, is probably the high point. Others would be more likely to give it to the plot, but I was particularly impressed with how believable and natural all the performances in the movie come across, when the entire cast is made up of amateurs. Candace Hilligoss gives the best performance, but Herk Harvey and that wicked smirk of his make for a pretty creepy villain, even though the character has no dialog. Here's who matters and why: Candace Hilligoss (The Curse of the Living Corpse), Sidney Berger (Carnival of Souls 1998), Herk Harvey (The Day After). Didn't exactly springboard any careers, as you can see. Matter of fact, Hilligoss' agent dropped her once they'd seen the movie.
The special effects... yup, you guessed it. Really though, it's not because of age that the flick lacks anything in this department, it's simply done this way by design. The only special effects to speak of would be the face paint on the apparitions. And one could speculate that the black and white photography probably did the crew a real favor by masking the goofiness of said face paint. With black and white it's at least a little disconcerting, in color, I suspect it may have generated a lot of laughter. So I guess that's that, on the special effects. The shooting locations are pretty dull for the most part, with the exception of the deserted carnival. The carnival's a great location, and because it was a real series of structures rather than a set, it allows for the great approach sequences wherein we watch the place swell in size until it's finally right in front of us. All the best scenes take place here, while the other locations are standard and generic, without much of an attempt made (or need) to impress. I suppose the old wooden bridge in the opening sequence isn't without its charm as well. Still, just decent with regard to the shooting locations. Too many boring interior shots for my liking. The soundtrack, while repetitive and overdone, is actually very catchy, and very effective at creating the surreal atmosphere of the movie. But as I mentioned, it gets way too much air time and makes a nuisance of itself on several occasions. Sometimes there's nothing more effective than dead silence, and the all organ soundtrack on this one becomes tedious and annoying at times. So we've got too much of a good thing, but in general, I liked it quite a bit. Kind of a Phantom of the Opera meets Phantasm feel to it. Overall, Carnival of Souls is difficult to quantify on paper, so I really can't not recommend it. You've just gotta watch it to figure out for yourself whether or not you like it. so consider giving it a shot, even if you're like me and prefer your flicks with a reasonable amount of action. If nothing else, it's just too significant in the history of the genre to dismiss out of hand.