In my opinion, Carnival of Souls is one of the best low-budget horror films ever made. Actually, scratch that budget part: It's one of the finest horror films ever made. Period. But just what makes it so special? How did this small, independent production manage to amass its devoted cult following? Why is it that this film continues to pick up more and more fans year after year after year? Why does it appeal not only to classic horror film buffs, but also many younger genre fans; even ones weaned on rapidly-edited, action-oriented flicks who don't even typically like older films? It's all pretty simple. Deceptively simple, really. The stunning black-and-white photography, supremely creepy organ score and the empty, desolate locations creating a feeling of complete isolation are part of the reason, for sure, but I really think what's key to its longevity is how it exploits our primal fears of the unknown and uncertainty about death and the afterlife. Just what waits for us in the beyond? What would happen if we somehow managed to escape our fate? What happens to those who hang on the threshold between life and death? There are few things as frightening in concept as being in this world while not actually being a part of this world. That simple, basic concept works brilliantly here, on both a literal and metaphoric level.
Candace Hilligoss, in one of her only known film roles, stars as Mary Henry. While out drag racing with some friends, the car she's in crashes over the side of the bridge. Miraculously, Mary emerges from the water; shaken, confused, wet, but seemingly unharmed. Wanting to leave this scary incident behind her, she decides to flee town to take up a job as a church organist in another city. It's just a job to her; a way to make money, but her soul isn't really in it. Mary gets a room in a boarding house run by the kooky, nosy Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist) and has to keep rejecting the continual advances of sleazy fellow boarder John Linden (Sidney Berger) from a few rooms down. John turns out to be the least of her problems though, when she realizes someone else has been trailing her. Whoever this pale, sunken-eyed, grinning mystery man is, no one else seems to be able to see him, he doesn't appear to be human... and he even has some similar other-worldly pasty-faced f(r)iends. They all seem to congregate at a abandoned carnival pavilion, and they'd like Mary to join them for one final dance.
Director Harvey (whose only other directorial credits were industrial and educational films) wonderfully exploits the idea of what it truly means to be alienated from this world. It's pretty much established that Mary's beauty is about all she really has going for her. Otherwise, she's rudely blunt, closed-off, somewhat awkward and terrible at social interaction. While it's always risky to center your film around a character who is cold and aloof, and thus not very personable to the audience, in this case it works by giving a grounded, realistic parallel to enhance the supernatural content. In other words, not feeling like you belong here is disheartening and scary enough to begin with. Now compound that with the concept of you actually not being wanted here by a higher, darker, mysterious power that has the final say in the matter regardless of how fast you try to run away from it. The pretty, wide-eyed, sharp-featured Hilligoss turned out to be an ideal casting choice for her ability to simultaneously keep us at arm's length and pull us in. We don't want to like her, and probably wouldn't bother with her in real life (not that she'd bother with us, anyway), but you still can't help but feel compelled by her vulnerability and her grim, hopeless plight all the same.
Aided immeasurably by composer Gene Moore's gloomy organ score and cinematographer Maurice Prather's atmospheric and sometimes expressionistic images, Harvey has managed to create more effectively spooky moments here than in just about any other film I can think of. Excellent use is made of the abandoned Saltair Pavilion (which burned down in the 1970s); a dead former amusement attraction situated in the barren salt flats. There are numerous unforgettable sequences in here; many enhanced with novel use of sound and all done with nary a special effect. Some of the creepy highlights are a ghost-like man peering in through a car window as Mary drives down a desolate stretch of deserted highway, creepy white-faced fiends filling up a bus or slowly emerging up from lake waters, Mary's visit to a department store and public park where the sound fades and she suddenly realizes that no one can see or hear her and the climactic, sped-up dance of the dead.
You will sometimes read complaints from those who have issues with some amateurish acting, the ultimate predictability of the story line or the fact it may have borrowed its central premise from an episode of "The Twilight Zone" called "The Hitch-Hiker." While some of that may be true, this is not a film for to pick apart over technicalities; it's a film to feel and experience for those capable of that. If you're the type of viewer who can escape into a film and be absorbed into its mood and ambiance, some rough-around-the-edges moments aren't going to blunt this film's impact one bit. Try watching it all alone late at night in a dark room and see if it doesn't have some kind of hypnotic effect on you.
It took awhile for Carnival to finally catch on and it didn't make so much as a ripple for decades. In 1989, that all changed when the film was re-released and reevaluated by critics, who saw how this film had actually bled over into many later popular films; influencing a wide range of directors, everyone from David Lynch to Martin Scorsese to George Romero, in the process. Echoes of Carnival can be seen in such hit films as The Sixth Sense, the Final Destination series and many other genre offerings. Perhaps the second most widely-watched public domain horror title of all-time (behind only NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; yet another film it heavily influenced), Carnival was horribly "remade" in 1998 for executive producer Wes Craven. You'd be best off forgetting that one even exists.