"Carnival of Souls" (Herk Harvey, 1962) Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is a "tough-minded little thing," according to one of the characters of "Carnival of Souls." They don't know the half of it. She's tough and more than a little stubborn. She's in transit, already to go to her next job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. If she's acting a bit like a "cold fish," it's no wonder after what she's been through. Joy-riding with BFF's, caught in a drag-race gone wrong, her car went off a bridge and now they're "dragging" the river for the car. Mary is the only one to walk out of the river. She's acting different. Stand-offish, like she doesn't belong, and she's in a particular hurry to get to Utah.
Funny place, Utah. There's the welcoming sign that mocks "Please Drive Carefully." And for some reason, the radio stations only play haunting organ music. That happens right before Mary sees a ghoulish face staring at her through her window...but just as quickly as it appears, it's gone, following ... haunting her.
Being as it was made in 1962, "Carnival of Souls" would fit in well as an episode of "The Twilight Zone"—a more atmospheric one, to be sure. In fact, it resembles an early episode (Episode 16, in fact) from TZ's first season—itself an adaptation of a 1940's radio play called "The Hitch-Hiker." In the television version, Inger Stevens plays a woman travelling to a new job who sees the same ragged-looking hitch-hiker thumbing his way in her path, she even sees him in her rear-view mirror. By an interesting coincidence, the music for that episode was written by the gifted Bernard Herrmann, using his original score from the radio-play, written by Herrmann's first wife, Lucille Fletcher.* It has a lot in common with one of the last of the TZ episodes, as well, but to reveal which would give the whole movie away.
The entire film was shot for $33,000 by an industrial film-maker named Herk Harvey, who got the idea for the film passing an abandoned Pavilion in Salt Lake City. As a director, Harvey has a good eye for detail, and his locked-down framing of shots is precise and pain-staking. As events of the film get wilder and more phantasmagorical, he throws the camera mount away and begins to employ circling, dizzying shots, making the film more nightmarish and hallucinogenic. The effects are crude, as is some of the acting; Ms. Hilligoss carries the whole movie on her shoulders, and makes a fine vessel for the audience's interest in what's going on, but occassionally can be caught acting, setting her apart from the amateur performances that make up the bulk of the film. Harvey, himself, plays the ghoulish Man who seems to be following Mary, although his effectiveness is undercut in long takes by the worry that his make-up is going to melt off his face.
Still, the movie is long on atmospherics, and that's entirely due to Harvey's direction and a hypnotic organ score by Gene Moore that keeps pumping up "the creep" every time things get a bit dull.
Rough, crude, but with some decidedly sophisticated craft to it, "Carnival of Souls" delivers enough chills to deserve its cult-movie status.
It's in the Public Domain. You can watch "Carnival of Souls" here, for free.
* And just to assure you just how incestuous the entertainment industry is, the original star of that radio-play was Orson Welles, for whose first two movies Herrmann wrote the scores: "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons."