Classic Review – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Director Herk Harvey as "The Man"

Director Herk Harvey as “The Man”

Carnival of Souls

Directed by Herk Harvey

Starring Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger

Review by Jordan

It should be stated, the only reason I originally came across Herk Harvey’s astonishing Carnival of Souls (1962) is because it came bundled in a “Classics in Colour” double-pack with Night of the Living Dead. Simply stated: don’t watch either in colour… but in gloriously Gothic black and white by all means track down this moody, creepy chiller and be prepared to intently ponder why, outside of comprehensive horror devotees, it has never achieved due recognition.

Either directly or indirectly influencing a slew of popular thrillers in the 50 years since its release (Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead instantly come to mind), the story of Carnival of Souls is that of Mary Henry, an attractive girl who with her friends agrees to a drag race on an old bridge, seemingly culminating in the drowning deaths of all involved until she emerges from the river below some time later. After she is thought to have recovered from the trauma, and having found work as a church organist, Mary is haunted the appearance of a strange man and finds herself drawn to a mysterious carnival that may or may not exist, leading to a finale every bit as satisfyingly haunting as the imagery preceding it.

Director Herk Harvey resides in an exclusive club, where each member has just one feature film to their name, and it’s a classic. Also appearing as the nightmarish figure credited only as “The Man,” he instils each moment with carefully mounting dread, beautifully moody music and environments of macabre majesty, whist also retaining a consistent weirdness throughout that is perhaps the reason for his masterpiece’s long stay in the wilderness. To quote our protagonist: “It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” The way in which dark dreams and reality are melded here caused me wonderful unease upon first viewing, and with every viewing since I have grown to appreciate it more; along with the fantastic central performance Candace Hilligoss offers, anchoring the story and encouraging audience empathy.

Re-released by Criterion in 2000, I urge all lovers of bizarre and cult films to experience Carnival of Souls and decide for yourself whether or not such level of praise truly is warranted, or if its absence from the minds of the vast cinema-going public is indeed understandable. Just remember to turn out the lights.

5 church organs out of 5

11 responses to “Classic Review – Carnival of Souls (1962)

    • It really is isn’t it? Even the blurb on the back of the DVD case talked it down a little bit, so it was such a great experience first seeing it and being surprised at every turn.

  1. I’m not nearly as prolific a reviewer as you two, but this was one movie I felt compelled to cover. I don’t rate it as highly as you (I gave it three out of five knives), but agree that any horror – particularly indie horror – fan worth their salt owes it a look. And the story behind the abandoned amusement park used in the film’s climactic scenes? Beyond strange. Absolutely fantastic set.

    • I’ll have to check out your review! (was browsing your site only recently actually). I’m glad that you agree its certainly worth a look, and ‘beyond strange’ is a great way to describe it.
      Cheers, Jordan

  2. Definitely not a film for colourisation. This past Halloween went as a generic ghoul but had this film in mind as I did the makeup. If I ever got to make a film, you’d definitely see influences from this film.

    • Unfortunately Halloween isn’t really an event here in Aus, but I can imagine going as “The Man” from Carnival of Souls would be great. I reckon the exact same thing Keith.

  3. YES!!!! Carnival of souls fo LIFE! Did you see the 1998 remake? What was Wes Craven thinking? Also, 5 church organs is such a fabulous ratings tool. Yes, fabulous.

    • Nice to see so many fans of it! No I haven’t seen the remake, and until recently I forgot it even existed (I still maintain that its never really been remade, ha). Thanks for stopping by J&E, I look forward to your thoughts going forward!

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