Every year at Halloween time, Turner Classic Movies runs a bunch of horror films. I record as many of them as I can with the hopes of having the time to watch some of them. Some of the films I've seen before, while others are new to my eyes. One of the films I recorded this year was CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). I saw this one way back in the 1980s and watched it again for the first time in thirty-some-odd years last night.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS, as it exists today, comes with a couple of pedigrees it didn't have in 1962. For one thing, the film is now distributed by Janus Films (the print I watched had this title), which is known for distributing both foreign and domestic films of classic status. COS has also been released on DVD by the prestigious Criterion Collection, which does a first rate job with all of their releases when it comes to print quality and archival material. So, CARNIVAL has more standing among film buffs today than it did when it was first released fifty-two years ago.
The story concerns a young woman (Candace Hilligoss) who somehow survives a fatal traffic accident (her car goes off of a bridge into a muddy river) at the beginning of the film. She emerges from the river, wet and covered in mud and she is, not surprisingly, shell shocked by the whole experience. She leaves her small Kansas town and travels to Salt Lake City, Utah where she has accepted a job as a church organist. Driving along the desolate highway at night, she sees a creepy man (Herk Harvey) outside of her car and in the roadway. Once settled in the city, she continues to see this mysterious, ghoul faced man at various times and places. Is he real or a figment of her disturbed imagination?
Hilligoss becomes more isolated and distant from the people around her and she becomes obsessed with the deserted and dilapidated carnival grounds situated on a dried up lake bed outside of town.. She journeys there alone to find answers but to no avail. She suffers several hallucinatory, disorienting episodes involving the pavilion, the ghoul man and other resurrected dead people. There's a nightmarish climax and a final shot that brings everything full circle.
Director Herk Harvey shot CARNIVAL OF SOULS entirely on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah with a budget of $33,000. The use of real locations and real people as actors adds a great deal of atmosphere to the film. This isn't some Hollywood production filmed on sound stages and back lots. There's a cinema verite feeling to the action and the camera work, framing and editing make CARNIVAL at times feel more like a European art film than a drive-in theater exploitation pot boiler.
Hilligoss is effective as the haunted lead and Hervey is creepy as the silent ghoul. The film has similarities to the classic first season TWILIGHT ZONE episode "The Hitch-Hiker" (air date January 22nd, 1960) which featured the lovely Inger Stevens as a blond motorist plagued by a mysterious hitch-hiker with both the film and the television show having roughly the same ending.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS also prefigures Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965) which starred the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve as a haunted young woman. And the low budget, shot-on-location, amateur actors, do-it-yourself ethos of CARNIVAL is a clear inspiration for George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).
CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a good little horror film. The atmosphere is suitably creepy and Hervey shows real flair as a director. He managed to get a lot of bang for his buck with this disturbing and haunting tale. Recommended.