Carnival Of Souls is a film all about a young woman named Mary (played by Candace Hilligoss). She is involved in a car crash at the start of the movie, somehow then walking away from the scene, without any memory of just how, and continuing on her journey. She's moving to another city, where she has been hired as a church organist. Unfortunately, she starts to see a strange, ghoulish, figure appearing in her life, a silent man who frightens Mary and makes her feel that she is going crazy. But the truth may be even worse than that.
Considering how effective and influential it is, Carnival Of Souls STILL doesn't really seem to be as celebrated as it should be. And trying to praise it without going into too much detail is difficult, but essential to preserve the impact of the movie for many who have still not yet marked it off their viewing lists.
Director Herk Harvey (who also plays that ghoulish man) somehow managed to take his limited resources and make a genre classic, albeit one that cherishes atmosphere and nightmare moments over decent acting or dialogue. Not to unfairly dismiss the script, written by John Clifford. There are some decent exchanges here and there, especially during a bizarre date scene between Mary and a young man named John (Sidney Berger), but the film has actual spoken words low on the list of priorities.
The same can be said for the actual acting. Hilligoss does okay in the main role, often looking wide-eyed and frightened, but it's hard not to think of many actresses being able to do a better job. That may all have been down to Harvey, of course, who obviously had a certain vision in mind, and her acting at least works better accompanied by the fine, creepy, score from Gene Moore. It's not often that I highlight the excellent use of an organ outwith the realm of adult sex films, but this is definitely worth mentioning. Back to the cast though, and you also get Berger doing just okay in his role, Frances Feist as a landlady, and Art Ellison as the minister who has hired Mary for her new job. Most of these cast members have very few other film credits, Berger only appearing in this and the 1998 (loose) remake, but they do what Harvey needs them to do.
You could say that Carnival Of Souls is a film all about the ending. It's certainly an effective and memorable finale. But it's so much more than just that, mainly because the whole film builds towards it, with Harvey proving to be quite a dab hand at creating and sustaining an atmosphere of foreboding and dread. It's a shame that he never gave us any more feature films (the rest of his filmography is made up of documentary shorts) but it would be a much greater shame if people stopped remembering him as a great talent, a creator of one outright classic little horror movie that casts a very long shadow over the genre to this day.
You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy the movie here.